Monday, April 11, 2011

The Poverty of Riches

At Big Questions Online, David Sloan Wilson asks Can riches be a form of poverty?

My colleagues and I have created an extensive database on the neighborhoods of Binghamton, including measures of neighborhood quality and median income. Dan O’Brien, my most recently minted PhD student, has also played experimental games with high school students in their classrooms. Experimental games are wonderful tools for studying the propensity to cooperate in social interactions. The results showed that students from the highest quality neighborhoods were most likely to cooperate in an experimental game, but that median income had a negative effect. The most cooperative kids came from high quality low income neighborhoods.

Once I recovered from the shock of realizing that “poverty” and “pathology” cannot be treated as synonyms, these results began to make sense. Sociologists such as Robert Putnam and Robert Sampson have long talked about “social capital” and “financial capital” as commodities that can substitute for each other. Why bother cooperating with others when you can pay for what you need with a credit card?