Representing the Poor: Where, When and How are the Interests of the Poor Represented in State Legislatures

Other External Scholars:
Gerald Wright, Indiana University
Elizabeth Rigby, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Project Date:
Nov 2006
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Social, Political, and Economic Inequality

Over the last century measures of income inequality and the ideological gulf between Democrats and Republicans in Congress have risen and fallen virtually in lockstep. Is political polarization reinforcing inequality? Gerald C. Wright and Elizabeth Rigby will study the effect of political polarization on redistributive policies and the representation of the poor, based on data from all 50 state legislatures. Using scores from issue questionnaires given by Project Vote Smart to state legislative candidates, Wright and Rigby will first examine whether the ideological divergence between Republicans and Democrats in Congress has been replicated in state legislatures. They will also ask whether candidates sympathetic to the economic interests of the poor are at a disadvantage in state elections, and whether this weeding out effect is exacerbated by the degree of ideological polarization in each state. Once elected, are representatives of poor districts as effective in passing legislation for their constituents as politicians from more affluent districts, and does their success rate vary with the degree of polarization in the legislature? The investigators will carry out case studies of the progress of bills through the legislature in 12 states, observing whether representatives from wealthy districts receive more support from their colleagues and are more likely to see their bills passed into law. Finally, Wright and Rigby will take advantage of the devolution to the states of many federal programs in the 1990s – including welfare and health care programs – to measure the generosity of aid to the poor in a way that is comparable across states. Thus they will be able to determine if there is a relationship between polarization among lawmakers and the adequacy of the social safety net provided by each state government.


Wright and Rigby’s study addresses some of the most salient questions confronting America today. Is ideological antagonism between the major parties helping or hurting America’s most vulnerable citizens? And is equal political representation really possible in a society where economic equality is growing ever more extreme?


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