Affluent Americans have disproportionate influence over policymaking, and often use their power to advance conservative economic policies that increase inequality. I show that this behavior is partially driven by affluent Americans’ desire for social status. First, I use a new survey scale to show that affluent Americans’ desire for social status strongly predicts their level of economic conservatism. Second, I test my theory experimentally in the context of social media. On sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, affluent Americans compete for social status by sharing curated versions of their lives that highlight their upper-class lifestyle. When I randomly assign affluent Americans to experience this status competition, it causes them to become more economically conservative. The results show that the desire for social status leads affluent Americans to use their political power in self-interested ways, and provide the first evidence that social media encourages political behaviors that are conducive to inequality. [You can access this paper here.]

Previous research has identified nonmaterial considerations as especially important in shaping the political views of affluent Americans. While other scholars have focused on social issues like abortion or gay rights, or on collective goods like environmental protection, we explore the role of altruism in shaping the economic policy preferences and partisan identification of high-income Americans. We argue that altruistic concern for the well-being of the less well-off leads many affluent Americans to support antipoverty policies and the Democratic Party. Using measures based on actual giving behavior, we document that altruism matters little for low-income Americans’ preferences and partisanship, but has substantively large effects on the affluent, leading altruistic high-income Americans to be substantially more supportive of antipoverty policy and the Democratic Party than their less altruistically inclined high-income peers. These findings help explain why a government that responds primarily to the wishes of the well-off may still pursue policies designed to help the poor. [You can access this paper here.]

Affluent Americans support more conservative economic policies than the non-affluent, and government responds disproportionately to these views. Yet little is known about the emergence of these consequential views. We develop, test, and find support for a theory of class cultural norms: These preferences are partly traceable to socialization that occurs on predominantly affluent college campuses, especially those with norms of financial gain, and especially among socially embedded students. The economic views of the student’s cohort also matter, in part independently of affluence. We use a large panel data set with a high response rate and more rigorous causal inference strategies than previous socialization studies. The affluent campus effect holds with matching, among students with limited school choice, and in a natural experiment; and it passes placebo tests. College socialization partly explains why affluent Americans support economically conservative policies. [You can access this paper here.]

Rising inequality and pro-affluent housing policy have led affluent Americans to become increasingly isolated into neighborhoods that only they are able to afford. I use an under-utilized and unusually large dataset to measure the effects of this isolation on affluent Americans’ perception of social conditions, including crime, healthcare accessibility, joblessness, and public school quality. I find that the affluent form perceptions of such social conditions by extrapolating from the conditions that exist in their own neighborhoods. When these neighborhoods are predominately affluent, offering little hint of the problems faced by the lower classes, the affluent take on perceptions of social conditions that are significantly more positive than the perceptions of everyone else in society. By leading politically and economically powerful affluent Americans to develop the false sense that others’ lives are as problem-free as their own, class isolation may imperil the prospects for improving social conditions in the United States. [You can access this publication here.]