COVID-19 is increasing economic inequalities around the world.
On the one hand, the number of people living in extreme poverty is increasing for the first time in decades. The World Bank estimates that at least 119 million more people will no longer have access to clean water, food and shelter due to the pandemic. On the other hand, the wealthy have benefited from a booming stock market, rising house prices and better job security.
Read More: COVID-19: How Growing Inequalities Have Been & Why We Can’t Afford To Ignore It
This gap between the rich and the poor is economic inequality – where a small number of people own most of the wealth.
Research has revealed a lot about how economic inequality affects human psychology. For example, people differ in their concern for the unequal distribution of wealth. People’s tolerance for inequality usually depends on how fair they believe that the economic system is. If someone thinks that others deserve what they have earned, they think inequality is more acceptable.
Social psychologists have also shown that economic inequality affects the way we treat others – when things are more unequal, we are much more less generous. It is important to note that those who think that inequality is fair tend to be much less generous to others.
All of this research so far has asked how economic inequalities affect adult psychology, but what about children?
Children experience the world differently from adults – they don’t watch the news or debate tax laws over dinner. Despite this, it is important that we understand what children think about economic inequalities. The adults that children become are, to some extent, shaped by their childhood experiences – where they grow up, what their parents think and who their peers are.
My colleagues and I have conducted several studies to understand how children experience economic inequality and how it affects the way they treat others.
As you can imagine, asking a kid what he thinks about the economy is difficult. To overcome this obstacle, we have designed a fun game, child-friendly experience in which children played several games with six puppets. During these games, the children and the puppets each gained points over time. But what the kids didn’t know was that we as experimenters were in control.
The children always got the same number of points (14) and had the same relative ranking (fourth place out of seven players). The only thing that changed was the inequality between the players – it was either 1) very uneven, where some puppets got a lot of points and others got very few, or 2) very even, where all the puppets got the same number of points. The children then received 14 stickers to keep in exchange for their 14 points.
It is important to note that the points the children and the puppets received did not clearly match the skill or effort they put in – it was neither meritocratic nor non-meritocratic. We did it on purpose; how wealth is distributed in real life doesn’t just depend on who has worked the hardest or who is the most skilled. We wanted to emulate this more realistic division of wealth to see how children’s interpretations influence their behavior.
We then gave the kids extra points to distribute among the puppets as they saw fit. Would they like to try to adjust the results by giving more to the poor? It actually depends.
Children between the ages of four and six appeared to have a “equality bias”- they gave each one a point each, even though some were already poor and others were rich. They also didn’t care much about inequality in the environment; instead they focused on their own results.
Children aged seven to nine, on the other hand, paid special attention to how resources were distributed among the puppets. They then gave more to the poor puppets to try and adjust the results.
We also asked the children if they thought the points were distributed fairly. To our surprise, whether the children experienced high or low inequality did not affect how fair they thought their economic system was. However, the children differed in their personal interpretations – some thought it was merit-based, others thought it was completely unfair, and some felt completely indifferent – as one child put it: “You get it. what you get and you don’t get upset “.
Critically, the children who thought the economic situation was unfair were the ones who gave to the poor. This suggests that children’s interpretations of inequality, rather than inequality itself, are a powerful driver of their concern and concern for the poor.
Read more: The rich and the poor don’t recover from epidemics equally. Rebuilding equitably will be a global challenge
At present, hundreds of millions of people live on less than $ 1.90 per day. Most of these people find themselves in this situation simply because they were born in a country with poor education, opportunities and standard of living.
The next generation of children will inherit this world. It’s time we understood what they think about it, because what they think dictates what they will do to help in the years to come.