Gift Rift: How Economic Inequality Affects Generosity

A couple years ago, Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and chief executive of Facebook, announced that he and his wife would give 99% of their Facebook shares — currently worth more than $45 billion — to charitable purposes. This offering of generosity comes in stark contrast to an existing body of research suggesting that higher-income people are less generous than poorer people.

In fact, studies have found that higher-income individuals break road rules and endanger pedestrians more frequently, take more candy from children, feel less compassion for cancer patients, and give less help to strangers in distress. A new study expands on this research with a possible explanation: visible economic inequality. These researchers suggest that wealthy people are less generous only under conditions of high economic inequality — situations which may foster a sense of entitlement among higher-income individuals or even a fear of losing their privilege were resources more evenly distributed.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development , which measures income distribution and poverty among industrialized nations, the gap between wealthy and poor in most countries is at its highest level in 30 years. Interestingly, they also found that more women in the workforce lowers income inequality, although women still earn 15% less than men. It’s no surprise, then, that only five of the G20, the world’s largest economies, are in the top 20 most generous countries. The World Giving Index of 2017 measures how much a country’s population donates money to charity, volunteers their time, or spends time helping a stranger. When the results came in, all Western countries decreased their giving, with Africa being the only continent to see an increase in all three giving behaviors.

This research shows that generosity doesn’t depend on the amount of money one has, but on how aware and mindful one is of the disparities between socioeconomic groups.

And perhaps this awareness is trainable. A recent study showed that, after two weeks of compassion training, people showed more altruistic behavior toward others. Similarly, women who underwent a one-day compassion meditation workshop showed greater prosocial behavior days after their training. While more studies are needed to elaborate on how compassion training makes us kinder, these results suggest that compassion can be cultivated through mental training. From the escalating gun violence to the ostracized and displaced populations worldwide, all these problems suggest that our global community could use more compassion. We know that exercise is good for the heart. But we’re beginning to see how exercising the mind gives us more heart.

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