CORNELL (US) — As income inequity rises, support among the poor for government policies offering increased welfare help declines.
Contrary to the popular belief that humans act in their own economic self-interest, a new study finds that lower incomes actually makes people more conservative.
“It’s a bit of a conundrum,” says Peter Enns, assistant professor of government at Cornell University.
Enns and Nathan Kelly of the University of Tennessee analyzed hundreds of survey questions from 1952 to 2006. Their paper appears in the October issue of the American Journal of Political Science.
The researchers also examined public opinion data on the question: Should government increase spending on welfare, keep it the same, or decrease it?
“As inequality rose, the high- and low-income respondents on average become less supportive of spending on welfare,” Enns says.
“And this is not because low-income people are unaware of inequality; our results show they are more aware of it than most people.”
Higher levels of household income inequality in the United States generate more conservative public opinion.
“We broke down public opinion by income group and found the high- and low-income groups responding in a similar way, both becoming more conservative when inequality rises,” Enns says.
“We were very surprised to observe that the self-reinforcing aspect of inequality holds for high- and low-income groups, and how they move together in parallel over time.”
Previous economic models predicted that low-income individuals will consistently support government redistribution.
“If anything, when inequality rises, low-income people should become more supportive, and that’s not what we observe in the data,” Enns says.
Conversely, when inequality declines, the public becomes more liberal. The public works projects and other social programs following the Great Depression helped promote decades of declining inequality into the 1960s.
“And then there’s a shift,” Enns says. “Once inequality starts going back up, it appears to be perpetuated by public opinion.
“If inequality declined in the United States, our results suggest that then the public would become more supportive of government redistribution.”
Nevertheless, people in the lowest income group favor more redistribution than those in the highest income group.
“I could envision both parties finding an angle from these research conclusions to support what they want,” Enns says.
“On the one hand, someone could say that even low-income individuals want less government redistribution when inequality rises and we should listen to the people. Alternately, you could envision Democrats saying, inequality is rising, so it’s necessary for the government to intervene.”
The study was supported by the National Science Foundation.
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