Immigration and the Median Voter’s Incentive to Redistribute Income in the United States

Christine E. Eibner, Princeton University
Publication Date:
Jan 2005
Project Programs:
Social, Political, and Economic Inequality

Non-citizens quadrupled as a percentage of the voting age population in the United States between 1972 and 2002. During the same period, the non-citizen population went from being reasonably well to do to being disproportionately poor. These changes have had important consequences from the perspective of the basic political economy model where inequality is reduced through redistribution that depends on the ratio of median voter income to mean income. This ratio has remained largely unchanged despite the large increase in inequality in the United States. We decompose the impact of non-citizens in two effects: a “sharing” effect and a “disenfranchisement” effect. Disenfranchisement implies that the median voter is wealthier than the median family. Sharing implies that the median voter turns against redistribution because poor non-citizens reduce what the median voter can gain from redistribution. Our analysis is based on analysis of the biennial November Current Population Survey. We report two additional findings. First, citizen turnout has not become increasingly stratified by income. Thus, the median voter has not become richer because of apathy among poor citizens. Second, there is a midterm cycle in voter turnout where relatively well-to-do non-voters in midterm years turnout in presidential years.


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