Community Income Inequality and the Economic Gap in Participation

Abstract

This paper reveals how community-level income inequality affects political participation. We theorize that local experiences of inequality increase awareness of the unequal distribution of income in the US, provoking political activity, particularly among those with more resources enabling them to act. Using restricted geographic data from the 2012 and 2016 ANES, we show local income inequality increases political participation, especially among the affluent. Using an instrumental variables design, we demonstrate these findings are not the result of reverse causality. Our results reveal the importance of considering both individual- and community-level factors when evaluating political behavior. They also suggest that as income inequality in the US continues to rise, so too will the gap in political participation between the rich and the poor, potentially leading elected officials to be even less responsive to the preferences and needs of the less affluent.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Data Availability

As noted in a footnote above, access to ANES Restricted Data can be obtained at: https://electionstudies.org/restricted-data-access.

Code Availability

All other materials needed to replicate the analyses in this paper are available at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/FMVTUF.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Access to ANES Restricted Data can be obtained at: https://electionstudies.org/restricted-data-access. All other materials needed to replicate the analyses in this paper are available at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/FMVTUF.

  2. 2.

    We refer to 06820 as Greenwich and 68135 as Omaha for simplicity, but the demographic characteristics we report pertain to these specific zip codes and not the entirety of the respective cities.

  3. 3.

    In 06830 there are 10,677 housing units, the population is 25,433, and the median household income is $107,086. In 68135 there are 9,634 housing units, the population is 25,875, and the median household income is $106,875.

  4. 4.

    Our study does not test which specific contextual features (e.g., visibility of low-income housing or car ownership) of more or less unequal environments produce this awareness and response—rather we examine how the set of attributes of unequal areas affect political behavior.

  5. 5.

    Yet, Hicks et al. (2016) also find when inequality is particularly stark, support for the party in power begins to decline among those with low and middle incomes. So, if inequality becomes particularly noticeable or significant—perhaps due to high levels of community inequality or a social or political context emphasizing inequality—the political activity of Americans across the income spectrum could increase.

  6. 6.

    This may also help explain why Solt (2008, 2010) identifies decreases in turnout due to state or national level inequality and why some other studies find that various forms of community-level heterogeneity diminish political participation among some groups (Giles and Dantico 1982; Giles et al. 1981; Gimpel and Lay 2005; Huckfeldt 1979; Oliver 1999).

  7. 7.

    More recent research also investigates how county income inequality affects people’s attitudes about inequality (Solt et al. 2016; Solt et al. 2017)—but not levels of political participation.

  8. 8.

    A downside of zip codes is that they vary in size across the country. This will bias us against finding an effect of local inequality on behavior since some people reside in geographically large zip codes where they will be relatively less aware of the inequality surrounding them than those living in more geographically compact zip codes.

  9. 9.

    The Cronbach’s alpha scale of reliability coefficient for the items included in the participation scale is 0.716 for all activities in the 2012 ANES and 0.696 for all activities in the 2016 ANES.

  10. 10.

    The proportion of respondents who reported engaging in each individual form of participation in 2012 and 2016 is displayed in Table A.18 in the Online Supplementary Material (SM).

  11. 11.

    We implemented a ‘crosswalk’ procedure to match ANES zip codes to ZCTAs for the small number of cases where the Census method of generating ZCTAs from census tracts made this necessary (Krieger et al. 2002).

  12. 12.

    For 2012, the measure is aggregated over five surveys from 2008 to 2012. For 2016 the measure is aggregated over five surveys from 2012 to 2016.

  13. 13.

    Specifically, this accounts for the fact that a community with a few very high income individuals, which would result in a higher mean income in the community, could cause both an increase in the Gini coefficient and changes in political participation not necessarily due to increased inequality. For example, communities with a high mean income will have a larger tax base, which may produce different levels of conflict surrounding local public finance than areas with a smaller tax base. Replicating our analyses using median household income instead (Table A.19) produces substantively similar results.

  14. 14.

    Because community inequality could also influence strength of partisanship, in Table A.20 we analyze how inequality affects participation excluding strength of partisanship as a covariate. Our results are substantively unchanged.

  15. 15.

    Details are available in SM Section C.

  16. 16.

    Analyses with data separated by year are available in SM Section D.

  17. 17.

    Change in community inequality over time might also influence participation by drawing residents’ attention to inequality. We evaluate this by testing how the change in community inequality since 2000 shapes participation. The results in SM Table A.21 suggest support for our theory as the coefficient for change in inequality is negative for low income residents but positive for those with higher incomes, suggesting that increasing inequality is associated with higher participation for those with moderate to high incomes. While these results are not statistically significant, perhaps due to the fairly small degree of within-community change in inequality over this time period, they are consistent with our theory.

  18. 18.

    Further confirmation of differences in how community inequality affects participation by individual income is available in the online SM, where we present the results from models that include an interaction between Community Income Inequality and individual income (Table A.22) or individual income quintile (Table A.23). Both interaction terms are statistically significant and positive, and the simple slopes for Community Income Inequality at each income level or income quintile category (predicted following the interaction models) are positive and statistically significant for those with medium–high or high incomes.

  19. 19.

    Furthermore, we reveal in SM Table A.24 that in lower inequality communities, high- and low-income individuals participate at roughly similar rates across most activities (other than voting and discussing politics); they engage in expressions of political voice with roughly similar levels of impact. In contrast, in more unequal areas, affluent individuals participate at much higher rates than low income individuals overall and have substantial advantages in participation in many activities (e.g., contacting the government, donating money, persuading others) that have potentially high levels of impact.

  20. 20.

    More details about the construction of the instrument are available in SM Section A.

  21. 21.

    While the primary test of our hypotheses—displayed in Table 1 and Fig. 1—involves only five models, when evaluating how inequality affects the variety of individual forms of participation across income quintiles, our number of analyses may lead some to wish to see corrections in our measures of statistical significance that account for multiple testing. In SM Table A.25, we display the coefficients and standard errors for community inequality for each participation type and income quintile, as well as indicators of statistical significance using False Discovery Rate (FDR) q values calculated using the Simes method (Newson 2011). This table reveals that after correcting the p values for multiple testing, community income inequality has a significant impact on using Facebook or Twitter, donating money, and signing an online petition among individuals in one of the top two income groups. We find no statistically significant relationships in the other income groups after adjusting the p values. However, that the estimated positive impact of inequality on several forms of participation remains among higher income individuals is consistent with our main theoretical predictions and the conclusions from our primary analyses.

  22. 22.

    To further probe the findings in Fig. 2, we also examine the 2012 and 2016 ANES data separately in SM Section D. The 2012 results largely mirror the results using our pooled data—inequality is associated with higher participation among more affluent individuals. In 2016, the results are more mixed as inequality is positively associated with a few forms of participation even for those in lower income quintiles, is positively associated with fewer forms of participation among the wealthy in 2016 than in 2012, and is in a couple cases associated with less activity in particular forms of participation. We propose that these more mixed results are driven by the different electoral contexts in 2012 and 2016. Specifically, the heightened discussion of economic inequality by candidates across the political spectrum in 2016 may have made inequality more apparent to all Americans—even those who did not live in unequal communities—and may have helped lower income Americans overcome demoralization due to their lower status. We discuss this at greater length in the online SM.

  23. 23.

    The specific differences in our findings may derive from the outcomes we study—existing work has focused on a smaller number of forms of participation, including voting (Solt 2008, 2010) and political discussion and interest (Solt 2008), while we studied many more forms of political engagement, and found inequality increased forms of participation not included in prior studies such as displaying a button or yard sign, contacting government, donating money, and attending a rally or protest. In fact, while our 2012 data shows attempting to persuade others (a form of political discussion) increased with inequality among high income respondents, we also find, consistent with Solt (2008), that it diminished among low income respondents as inequality increased. Less consistent with previous work, our 2016 data does reveal an increase in voting among lower and middle income respondents as community inequality rises.

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We thank Christopher Ojeda for helpful comments on this paper.

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Szewczyk, J., Crowder-Meyer, M. Community Income Inequality and the Economic Gap in Participation. Polit Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-020-09621-6

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Keywords

  • Economic inequality
  • Political inequality
  • Political participation
  • Social context