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Economic Inequality and Political Power (Part 1 of 3)

- August 13, 2012

In a democracy, all citizens–the rich, middle-class, poor alike–must have some ability to influence what their government does. Few people would expect that influence to be identical: those with higher incomes and better connections will always be more influential. But if influence becomes so unequal that the wishes of most citizens are ignored most of the time, a country’s claim to be a democracy is cast in doubt. And that is exactly what I found in my analyses of the link between public preferences and government policy in the U.S.

In my recent book, Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, I examined thousands of proposed policy changes over the past four decades. I compared the strength of support (or opposition) of survey respondents at different income levels with actual policy outcomes in the years following the survey.

As expected, greater public support increased the likelihood of a proposed policy change being adopted, as shown in the first chart below.

In many areas of government policy, the preferences of lower and higher income Americans are similar, and in these cases, the strength of the policy/preference link is necessarily similar as well. I found little difference by income level for about half the proposed policy changes in my dataset, including most aspects of defense, environmental policy, the war on drugs, family leave, and even antipoverty policy (where, for example, the affluent and the poor alike support strengthening work requirements, job training, and child care for welfare recipients).

When preferences across income groups do diverge, however, I found that the association with policy outcomes persisted for the affluent but disappeared for the middle class and the poor, as the second chart shows. (I used the 90th, 50th and 10th income percentiles to represent these three groups.)

Affluent Americans tend to be more liberal on moral and religiously charged issues like abortion and school prayer, and more conservative on redistributive economic issues, government regulation, and trade policy. If federal policy more equally reflected the preferences of all Americans, we would see a more progressive tax structure, higher unemployment benefits, stronger regulation of business and industry, a more protectionist trade regime, more prayer in public life, and less access to abortion.

On many of these issues, the difference between the affluent and the poor reflects differing degrees of support or opposition rather than a difference in the majority preference. But as the charts suggest (and as I discuss at some length in the book), differences of degree can be as consequential, if not more consequential, than differences in majority preferences. A policy with weak support is modestly more likely to be adopted than one with weak opposition, but a policy with strong support is considerably more likely to be adopted than one with weak support.

These findings suggest that political representation functions reasonably well for the affluent. But the middle-class and the poor are essentially unrepresented (unless they happen to share the preferences of the well-off). In a second post tomorrow, I’ll discuss my more hopeful findings that reveal the (less typical) conditions under which government responsiveness to public preferences is stronger and more equal.

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