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Why Envy Isn’t the Answer to the Problem of Poverty

You know the feeling—that moment when you get distracted and start “stalking” your friends on Facebook. Based on their status updates and pictures, everyone starts to seem better off than you—more accomplished, more loved, better looking and more likable. You, in contrast, begin to feel that you lead a boring, unaccomplished life.

You’ve just fallen into the envy trap—again.

Envy isn’t fun or healthy. According to AEI President Arthur Brooks:

Psychologists have found that envy pushes down life satisfaction and depresses well-being. Envy is positively correlated with depression and neuroticism, and the hostility it breeds may actually make us sick. Recent work suggests that envy can help explain our complicated relationship with social media: it often leads to destructive “social comparison,” which decreases happiness. To understand this, just picture yourself scrolling through your ex’s wedding photos.

Unfortunately, economic envy is no exception and it’s spreading throughout America. Brooks continues:

My own data analysis confirms a strong link between economic envy and unhappiness. In 2008, Gallup asked a large sample of Americans whether they were “angry that others have more than they deserve.” People who strongly disagreed with that statement—who were not envious, in other words—were almost five times more likely to say they were “very happy” about their lives than people who strongly agreed. Even after I controlled for income, education, age, family status, religion and politics, this pattern persisted. It’s safe to conclude that a national shift toward envy would be toxic for American culture.

But what exactly is economic envy? It’s more commonly known as income inequality, an issue that has received a lot of attention from the President, policy makers and the media in recent months. The concern is that the gap between the incomes of the rich and poor is growing. Isn’t it unfair, we reason, that the rich are so rich while there are so many in need?

[pullquote]     Let the rich be rich. Envying their wealth will not make us richer, nor will it make us happier.[/pullquote]

It’s true that the gap between rich and poor is growing. But the fact that we are prioritizing this issue over other economic woes shows that we might be falling prey to wealth envy.

Let me explain. When most people express their horror over income inequality, I suspect that they are really trying to express their desire to help the poor. But the reality is that income inequality really has very little to do with poverty.

Poverty itself is decreasing at astronomical rates. The World Bank says, “The 1990 extreme poverty rate—$1.25 a day in 2005 prices – was halved in 2010, according to new preliminary estimates.”

So globally, the rich are getting richer but the poor are not getting poorer. So while income inequality may be increasing, poverty is not. The United States is no exception to that rule. My colleague, Anne Bradley says:

Did you know that over one hundred million people in the US have air conditioning in their homes? Or that ninety-nine percent of families living at or under the US poverty thresholds have a refrigerator? These things are incredibly important for our standard of living. It’s even more important that in a wealthy country like the US, the poor have access to them.

Historically, the poor would never have been able to attain this standard of living. This level of flourishing is possible today largely because of innovation and the market process.

Of course, we should not be content with this status quo. We want to see the poor get richer and attain even greater levels of material flourishing. The best way of doing this, however, is not to seek income equality, but to give the poor access to opportunities that will allow them to move into jobs that pay more—something called “income mobility.” For Arthur Brooks, this sort of opportunity society involves:

Education reform that empowers parents through choice, and rewards teachers for innovation. It means regulatory and tax reform tailored to spark hiring and entrepreneurship at all levels, especially the bottom of the income scale. It means recalibrating the safety net to ensure that work always pays—such as an expansion of the earned-income tax credit—while never disdaining the so-called dead-end jobs that represent a crucial first step for many marginalized people.

Let the rich be rich. Envying their wealth will not make us richer, nor will it make us happier. Instead of equalizing incomes, wouldn’t it be better to focus on creating a society and an economic system that provide individuals with ample opportunities for increasing their incomes, if they so desire?