Monday, December 15, 2014

Income, Turnout, and Inequality

The London School of Economics and Political Science's USAPP blog today features a post by Lucy Barnes explaining that higher voter turnout in the United States would be unlikely to change redistributive policies in the American states. She writes:
In recent research, I have looked at differences in government spending, and spending targeted towards the poor, across the American states. This also allows for detailed investigation of the income mechanisms involved, as the Current Population Survey provides data, representative at the state level, on both income and (reported) voter participation. From this individual-level data I constructed measures of the income of the median voter for every state-year from 1978 to 2002. In considering the relationship between median voter income, spending, and the typical aggregate measures of turnout and inequality, we can investigate whether the mechanisms purported to explain the macro-level relationships (that higher inequality and turnout drive higher spending).

First, does the income of the median voter matter for the level of government spending? I find little evidence that it does. Or rather, there is some evidence of a statistically discernible effect, but its substantive size is very small. For a thousand dollar increase in the gap between average income and the income of the median voter, annual public welfare spending per capita increases by $6! Total government spending declines with the decisive voter’s income shortfall, but again the size of these effects is tiny– around $40 for a $1000 change. This small effect size, more than the statistical insignificance of the effects, indicates that any impact of the income of the decisive voter on policy outcomes is limited. Second, if the income of voters as a whole, which depends on inequality and who turns out to vote, is the mechanism by which these factors affect spending, we should see the effects of these aggregate-level variables reduced once the direct measure is included as a predictor in the statistical model. I find no evidence that this is the case, either.
Dr. Barnes attributes the limited impact of turnout on policy outcomes to Americans' abysmal turnout rates in state elections. She argues that so many low-income voters abstain, even in high turnout states, that "the necessary relationship between higher turnout and greater equality in turnout may no longer hold." That seems plausible, but I would also add that there is some evidence showing that lower-income Americans and higher-income Americans tend to have very similar policy preferences and, as a consequence, that biases in voter turnout related to income may not produce significant bias in the policy preferences of the electorate.

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