The Two Income-Participation Gaps

November 27, 2018

A number of prior studies have shown that the rich are more likely to participate in politics than the poor. However, as RSF grantee Christopher Ojeda (University of Tennessee) points out, researchers using survey data to study this “income-participation gap” typically ask respondents about their household income in the year preceding the interview, rather than examining their income over the life course. “Might economic history also be an appropriate measure of economic status and one that matters to political participation?” Ojeda asks. “Growing up in or even briefly experiencing poverty as a child has negative consequences in adulthood—poor health, reduced cognitive ability, mental health disorders, and limited educational opportunities, to name just a few.” These outcomes, in turn, could affect political behavior such as voting.

In a study supported by RSF, Ojeda used a two-part model to examine the connections between economic status and political participation. He analyzed data from six surveys—the General Social Survey, the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the Youth-Parent Socialization Study, the Children of the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics—and found evidence for two income-participation gaps: one based on current economic status and another based on economic history. “The results, although mixed at times, indicate that the overall size of the income-participation gap has been understated by focusing on current economic status,” Ojeda writes. “Once economic history is incorporated into models of voting, the cumulative difference in turnout between the rich and the poor grows substantially.”

Ojeda found that individuals’ economic history—or whether they grew up in a rich or poor household—affected their political participation in early adulthood, with 20-year-olds who had grown up in poor households less likely to vote than their more affluent counterparts. In other words, respondents whose families had below-average income at age 16 were less likely than those who from affluent families to vote at age 20. 

“These findings magnify the troubling aspects of the connection between economic status and participation because they show that poor children’s capabilities for political participation are diminished through no fault of their own,” Ojeda writes. “If the political cycle of poverty is the ways in which poverty reduces participation, degrades representation, and leads to policy outcomes that reinforce poverty, then what are the implications when poverty originates in childhood?”

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