Skip to Navigation

RSF Review

RSF Review

The Political Influence of Economic Elites

April 12, 2013

influence-of-the-richDo the poor have as much say as the rich in the American political system? In the wake of the 2012 Presidential race – the most expensive in history – as well as the landmark 2010 Citizens United case, the political influence of the wealthy has become a much-discussed topic. However, our understanding of how rising inequality has influenced the U.S. political process and the policies it has produced remains limited. While both scholars and citizens suspect economic elites have great influence on politics, social scientists have yet to quantify that influence and identify the causal mechanisms linking elite influence and money to political outcomes.

Emerging empirical evidence has shown some promising pathways for future research. In Affluence and Influence, RSF grantee Martin Gilens of Princeton University shows that America's policymakers respond almost exclusively to the preferences of the economically advantaged. Moreover, a recent paper by political scientist Nicholas Carnes of Duke University demonstrates that the near-absence of the working-class people in public office promotes economic policies that benefit white-collar Americans at the expense of the less fortunate.

To deepen our understanding of the relationship between economic and political inequality, the Russell Sage Foundation launched its Politics of Inequality initiative in 2006. As part of this effort, the Foundation recently created a new working group to expand the research field of economic influence on political life by examining how economic elites have influenced the myriad ways politics is done and the relationship between these processes and inequality. The research questions to be explored through this working group, led by sociologist Shamus Khan and political scientist Dorian Warren of Columbia University, are twofold. First, how do elites use their economic resources to influence political outcomes? And second, how has the increase in inequality over the past forty years—particularly the increase in the wealth/income share of elites—impacted processes of political influence? And how have the outcomes of political influence affected the overall levels of inequality?

New Research Studies Impact of Religious Groups on Immigrants

April 11, 2013

Religious and nonreligious organizations may have a similar impact on the ability of immigrants to acclimate to life in the U.S., despite the organizations’ different motivations for providing charitable services, according to new research from Rice University and the Russell Sage Foundation.

“There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether religious organizations offer some special or unique benefit to immigrant groups that will help them better adapt to American society,” said the study’s lead author, Elaine Howard Ecklund, the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Sociology and director of Rice’s Religion and Public Life Program. “We wanted to see at the organizational level whether there was any practical difference between these two groups.”

The study examined the behavior of two Mexican-American organizations, one religious and one nonreligious. The two groups identified different motivations for providing job placement, language and financial services to immigrants: The religious organization said its religious convictions necessitated service to the local community, whereas the nonreligious organization cited its commitment to at-risk groups. However, the study showed that there was was little difference in the impact of the two organizations – both sought to provide outreach and services to their respective communities.

The study’s co-author, Michael Emerson, the Allyn and Gladys Cline Professor of Sociology and Kinder Institute co-director, noted that although there is little difference between the organizations at the present time, that may change in the future.

“There may be significant changes as these organizations deal with second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans,” Emerson said. “These individuals might have different concerns, so the mission and services provided by these organizations very well may change.”

The Political Socialization of Adolescent Children of Immigrants

April 11, 2013

Social Science Quarterly has published a new RSF-funded paper that examines the politics of adolescent children of immigrants in the United States. Written by Melissa Humphries, Chandra Muller and Kathryn Schiller, the study "aims to evaluate the adolescent political socialization processes that predict political participation in young adulthood, and whether these processes are different for children of immigrants compared to white third-plus-generation adolescents." Here is a summary:

Methods
We use a nationally representative longitudinal survey of adolescents to evaluate the predictors of three measures of political participation—voter registration, voting, and political party identification—and whether the process leading to political participation varies by immigrant status and race/ethnic group.

Results
We find that the parental education level of adolescents is not as predictive for many minority children of immigrants compared to white children of native-born parents for registration. Additionally, the academic rigor of the courses taken in high school has a greater positive estimated effect on the likelihood of registration and party identification for Latino children of immigrants compared to white third-plus-generation young adults.

Conclusions
The process of general integration into U.S. society for adolescent children of immigrants may lead to differing pathways to political participation in young adulthood, with certain aspects of their schooling experience having particular importance in developing political participation behaviors.

New Working Paper: The Great Recession and the Social Safety Net

April 8, 2013

Supported by our Great Recession initiative, economist Robert A. Moffitt has released a working paper that investigates the performance of the social safety net during the Great Recession. Here is the abstract:

The social safety net responded in significant and favorable ways during the Great Recession. Aggregate per capita expenditures grew significantly, with particularly strong growth in the SNAP, EITC, UI, and Medicaid programs. Distributionally, the increase in transfers was widely shared across demographic groups, including families with and without children, single parent and two-parent families. Transfers grew as well among families with more employed members and with fewer employed members. However, the increase in transfer amounts was not strongly progressive across income classes within the low-income population, increasingly slightly more for those just below the poverty line and those just above it, compared to those at the bottom of the income distribution. This is mainly the result of the EITC program, which provides greater benefits to those with higher family earnings. The expansions of SNAP and UI benefited those at the bottom of the income distribution to a greater extent.

Racial Inequality Without Racism: An Interview with Nancy DiTomaso

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
April 3, 2013

racial inequalityNancy DiTomaso is Professor of Management and Global Business at Rutgers Business School—Newark and New Brunswick. She is also the author of our latest book, The American Non-Dilemma, which provides a comprehensive examination of the persistence of racial inequality in the post-Civil Rights era and how it plays out in today's economic and political context.

Q: Let’s start with the title of your book, a reference to the landmark text by Gunnar Myrdal, The American Dilemma. Myrdal argued that white Americans would eventually face the contradiction or dilemma between their belief in American values such as equality and fair opportunity on the one hand, and the growing attention to racial inequality on the other. You argue, however, that for many whites, no such dilemma currently exists. Why do you believe whites are "uncertain allies in the struggle for civil rights"?

A: Myrdal’s argument, contrary to the way it is often portrayed, is that white Americans would experience a moral dilemma because of the contradiction between the foundational beliefs held by all Americans toward equality before the law and fair play and the growing evidence at the time he was writing of racial inequality in the politics of the 1930s, as well as in the racial dimension of World War II (i.e., a fight against an ideology of racial supremacy in Germany and Japan), which he claimed was understood around the world. He believed that this moral dilemma would lead some whites, especially in the North, to use both law and social movements to bring about an end to the racial caste system, especially in the South.

I found in my analysis, however, that in the post-Civil Rights period, the framing of racial inequality in terms of racism and discrimination, that is, of some whites doing bad things to or holding back nonwhites, especially African Americans, contributes to an American Non-Dilemma. Because whites do not have to actively exclude or do bad things to blacks in order to benefit from racial inequality, they do not experience the kind of moral dilemma that Myrdal believed would move them to support social change. Thus, in the post-Civil Rights period, I argue that it is whites helping other whites that may be as much a factor in reproducing racial inequality as whites discriminating against or expressing racist feelings towards blacks and other nonwhites. Indeed, most whites say they believe in civil rights, believe that equal opportunity is the standard of fairness, and believe that everyone should be rewarded for their efforts. They do not readily think about the extent to which they drew on the social resources and help from family, friends, and acquaintances in order to get their own jobs. Yet, I found that this is how the interviewees in my study found most of their jobs throughout their lifetimes.

Q: One of your main arguments is that the national conversation on racial inequality remains too focused on racism, or racial discrimination. Instead, you say we should focus on “in-group favoritism” in terms of whites helping other whites. Explain how this dynamic works, and why you think it’s a better frame for thinking about racial inequality.

A: Because whites disproportionately hold jobs with more authority, higher pay, more opportunities for skill development and training, and more links to other jobs, they can benefit from racial inequality without being racists and without discriminating against blacks and other nonwhites. In fact, I argue that the ultimate white privilege is the privilege not to be racist and still benefit from racial inequality.

In my study, I found that 99 percent of the interviewees found 70 percent of the jobs they had held throughout their lifetimes with the added help from family, friends, or acquaintances, who provided them with inside information not available to others, such as when a job was available, used influence on their behalf, or actually offered them an opportunity or a job. That is, although all of the interviewees said that equal opportunity is the standard of fairness, almost all of them actively sought "unequal opportunity” in their own lives. The last thing that they would want was to have to compete equally in the job market, when finding a job that paid a living wage, provided benefits and some job security was so important to having a decent life. Given this, most wanted to find ways to “get ahead” or to “gain advantage.”

Stagnant Wealth for Future American Generations

April 2, 2013

With the Foundation's support, the Urban Institute has published a report on the stagnating levels of wealth among younger Americans. Entitled "Lost Generations? Wealth Building Among Young Americans," the study shows that, contrary to historical wealth accumulation patterns, Americans under 40 are not richer than previous cohorts:

As a society gets wealthier, children are typically richer than their parents, and each generation is typically wealthier than the previous one at any given age. For example, near peak wealth accumulation in their mid-50s to mid-60s, those born in 1943–51 are wealthier than those born in 1934–42, who are wealthier than those born in 1925–33. This pattern does not hold for the younger among us. People born starting in 1952 no longer find their wealth above the prior cohort by 2010. Nor is the most recent 1970–78 cohort’s average above prior cohorts. Younger cohorts’ average wealth is simply no longer outpacing older cohorts.

Looking at it another way, 65- to 73-year-olds today have far more wealth than 65- to 73-year-olds did in 1983. More generally, the net worth of those 47 and older is roughly double that of someone the same age 27 years earlier. Today’s adults in their mid-30s or younger—the prime time for career and family formation—benefited little from the doubling of the economy since the early 1980s and have accumulated no more wealth than their counterparts 25 years ago.

In an interview with the New York Times, Signe-Mary McKernan, one of the study's authors, explained the implications of this worrying trend:

Strong and sustained job and wage growth would cure many of the ills facing younger workers, experts said. But their delayed or diminished wealth accumulation might still have a lasting impact on their finances.

“It’s a little bit of a tipping-point moment,” said McKernan. “If we don’t address it today, they might never catch up.”

For instance, the researchers said, if a person delayed the purchase of a home to age 40 instead of buying at age 30, that might result in a $42,000 loss in home equity by the time she reaches 60, given trends in wealth accumulation over the past few decades.

New Paper: The Genomic Revolution and Beliefs about Essential Racial Differences

March 28, 2013

RSF Visiting Scholar Jo Carol Phelan has co-published a new paper in the latest American Sociological Review. Here is the abstract:

Could the explosion of genetic research in recent decades affect our conceptions of race? In Backdoor to Eugenics, Duster argues that reports of specific racial differences in genetic bases of disease, in part because they are presented as objective facts whose social implications are not readily apparent, may heighten public belief in more pervasive racial differences. We tested this hypothesis with a multi-method study. A content analysis showed that news articles discussing racial differences in genetic bases of disease increased significantly between 1985 and 2008 and were significantly less likely than non–health-related articles about race and genetics to discuss social implications. A survey experiment conducted with a nationally representative sample of 559 adults found that a news-story vignette reporting a specific racial difference in genetic risk for heart attacks (the Backdoor Vignette) produced significantly greater belief in essential racial differences than did a vignette portraying race as a social construction or a no-vignette condition. The Backdoor Vignette produced beliefs in essential racial differences that were virtually identical to those produced by a vignette portraying race as a genetic reality. These results suggest that an unintended consequence of the genomic revolution may be the reinvigoration of age-old beliefs in essential racial differences.

The Politics of Wealthy Americans

March 26, 2013

Perspectives on Politics has published an important RSF-funded paper entitled "Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans." Written by Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright, the study reports findings from a groundbreaking effort to provide "systematic evidence on the policy preferences of really wealthy Americans." Here is the abstract:

It is important to know what wealthy Americans seek from politics and how (if at all) their policy preferences differ from those of other citizens. There can be little doubt that the wealthy exert more political influence than the less affluent do. If they tend to get their way in some areas of public policy, and if they have policy preferences that differ significantly from those of most Americans, the results could be troubling for democratic policy making. Recent evidence indicates that “affluent” Americans in the top fifth of the income distribution are socially more liberal but economically more conservative than others. But until now there has been little systematic evidence about the truly wealthy, such as the top 1 percent. We report the results of a pilot study of the political views and activities of the top 1 percent or so of US wealth-holders. We find that they are extremely active politically and that they are much more conservative than the American public as a whole with respect to important policies concerning taxation, economic regulation, and especially social welfare programs. Variation within this wealthy group suggests that the top one-tenth of 1 percent of wealth-holders (people with $40 million or more in net worth) may tend to hold still more conservative views that are even more distinct from those of the general public. We suggest that these distinctive policy preferences may help account for why certain public policies in the United States appear to deviate from what the majority of US citizens wants the government to do. If this is so, it raises serious issues for democratic theory.