Taking a Closer Look at Preferences in Giving to the Homeless
Key words: Class inequality, attitudes, intergroup relations, homelessness
Homelessness is a polarizing issue within our society. You don’t have to look far before finding hostile online conversations about homelessness. Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) supporters believe that housing for people who are homeless should not be located near those living above the poverty line. Anti-panhandling laws have spread across the United States. The implementation of anti-loitering laws and laws that allow the placement of jagged landscaping where homeless people sleep, aim to prevent homeless people from occupying space in certain areas. With this much controversy surrounding homelessness, we were curious about perceptions of giving to people who are homeless and if these preferences shared a relationship with socioeconomic status (SES). What we found was an understudied area of a very pressing issue.
To better understand attitudes toward helping homeless people, we designed a study assessing giving preferences, their relationship to SES, and the attitudes underlying them. First, we explored whether SES was related to preferences for giving assistance directly to homeless people or providing assistance indirectly through charities. We believed that participants might be reluctant to give directly to a homeless person, based on the prevalence of anti-panhandling laws. However, we also thought it possible that participants might hesitate to give through third party charities, due to the many charity scandals in recent years. Researchers in our lab, and in others, have found a negative relationship between SES and prosocial behavior, with higher SES participants less likely to help others1.
Based on these results, we hypothesized that higher SES participants would prefer giving indirectly. We also examined two possible explanations for this relationship: desire for social distance from homeless people and perceived effectiveness of a particular activity aimed at helping. In order to test these ideas, we created eight scenarios that involved giving money or time either directly to a person who is homeless or indirectly through a third party. Participants read the scenarios and ranked how likely they would be to engage in the activity, feel comfortable performing the activity (as a measure of preference for social distance), and view the activity as effective at helping people who are homeless. We then tested participants’ preferences for direct versus indirect giving, examined the relationship between SES and giving preferences, and tested desire for social distance and perceived effectiveness of the activity as potential mediators.
We found that those higher in SES had a greater preference than individuals lower in SES for engaging in indirect giving (over giving directly) to a homeless person. We then tested our two mediators, preference for social distance and perceived effectiveness, to see if either had an effect on the relationship between SES and giving preferences. We found that both were significant mediators, but that social distance was the stronger mediator. We are currently working on a second study that will further tease apart the relationship between desire for social distance and preferences for giving to the homeless.
With public opinion so polarized over how to address homelessness, we hope this research will help shed some light on the attitudes underlying giving preferences towards people who are homeless. This research has the potential to help inform different organizations who help people who are homeless about the best ways to approach potential donors and volunteers. Our investigation of social distancing preferences could also provide insight into some of the attitudes behind movements like NIMBY. We hope this research can be used as a stepping stone for future studies to dig even deeper into the relationship between SES and attitudes towards giving to people who are homeless.
1. Piff, P. K., & Robinson, A. R. (2017). Social class and prosocial behavior: current evidence, caveats, and questions. Current opinion in psychology, 18, 6-10.