Kylie Jenner has an estimated net worth of $900 million dollars, but this weekend encouraged her fans to donate to a GoFundMe account.
The 23-year old entrepreneur posted on Instagram Live asking for donations to cover makeup artist Samuel Rauda’s medical expenses after he was in a serious accident. Jenner contributed $5,000 to the cause, which initially had a goal of $10,000 that was raised to $120,000 after donations skyrocketed following her social media plea.
“May God watch over you and protect you @makeupbysamuel,” Jenner wrote with a black-and-white photo of Rauda. “Everyone take a moment to say a prayer for Sam who got into an accident this past weekend. And swipe up to visit his families (sic) go fund me.”
The Internet crackled with rage. Jenner, according to Forbes, was the highest-paid celebrity of 2020, and many people noted she could have easily covered the cost of Rauda’s medical expenses herself. People called her “out of touch with reality,” and said they were “embarrassed for her.”
Jenner took to Instagram Monday to defend herself.
“I saw my current makeup artist and friend Ariel post about Sam’s accident and his family’s gofundme… it compelled me to visit his gofundme which was set at 10K.” Jenner wrote she “thought I’d post on my stories to gain more awareness if anyone also felt compelled to share or donate. I don’t know how all of this got so twisted but his family has reached out through Ariel and are very appreciative…”
Jenner did not direct her fans to a cause, but to an individual who she was more than financially capable of supporting. The backlash raises questions about whether wealth influences altruism. Experts say research on social class and compassion is mixed. But Jenner’s recent social media blunder is a lens into the way socioeconomic status can impact expressions of empathy and generosity.
“If you set up a system of government and policy that values self-interest and de-emphasizes community, you will get those behaviors in higher status members of society,” said Michael Kraus, a social psychologist at Yale University who specializes in the study of inequality. “Does wealth always lead to selfishness? No, but if self-interest gets you ahead then the people who are at the top of society will have succeeded at being selfish and will have more influence on policies that continue to reward those kinds of practices.”
When you have less but give more
Charlotte Clymer, director of communications and strategy at Catholics for Choice, tweeted in response to the controversy that “Folks are defending Kylie Jenner by pointing out she donated $5,000 to her makeup artist’s medical GoFundMe. Her net worth is $900M. So, that’s 0.000006% of her net worth. If your net worth were, say, $100k, it would be like donating 56 cents.”
It was retweeted 38,000 times.
While wealthy people may give more money to charity overall because they are in a position to be more generous, some research shows people in lower classes actually give higher proportions of their money to charity.
A 2010 study Kraus co-authored found people of lower socioeconomic status – those with fewer resources and who one might expect would prioritize self-interest – proved to be more generous, charitable, trusting, and helpful compared with wealthier individuals. The authors noted “lower class individuals acted in a more prosocial fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion.”
Some psychologists suggest people with less means may exhibit these behaviors because their survival is dependent on social connection.
Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Greater Good Science Center, said in the center’s magazine in 2015 that, “When you lack institutional support, when you face threats in life, the only way to survive your environment is to connect with other people. You reach out to people more. You form strong social ties. You need them, and they need you. When you’re poorer, you’re helping someone get to work if their car broke down, or looking after their child while they run to the store – and they’re doing the same for you.”
Wealthier people do not face those specific kinds of threats to their well-being, he said. He also said because the U.S. is segregated by class, wealthy people aren’t interacting with people of lower classes as frequently, which can impact their ability to see the world as it really is.
When social class impacts how you respond to suffering
This isn’t the first time Jenner has been accused of being out of touch. Jenner was slammed in 2019 for hosting a “Handmaid’s Tale” themed birthday party for her friend. Fans accused Jenner of turning a show that depicts rape and oppression into a laughing matter, calling the party “tone deaf” and “disturbing.”
In 2011, social psychologist Jennifer Stellar led a study that found social class can influence responses to suffering. In one part of her study, Stellar hooked participants up to heart rate monitors to measure physical reactions to an advertisement for St. Jude’s hospital of families coping with a cancer-stricken child. The bodies of the lower class volunteers had a more compassionate response to the video, which she measured by heart rate deceleration.
“It’s not that the upper classes are coldhearted,” Stellar said when the study published. “They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.”
One study showed the most entitled individuals are those who experienced “sustained privilege” – those who grew up in wealthy homes and remain wealthy as adults.
There are many wealthy people who behave generously. More than a dozen billionaires, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, have pledged to give away more than half their wealth to charitable causes. Kraus said he attributes variability in generosity to personality.
“I imagine wealthy folks stay as connected to other people as they want to,” he said.