Income Inequality, Polarization, and Representation of the Poor

Publication Date:
Jan 2010
Project Programs:
Social, Political, and Economic Inequality

In this paper we examine the conditional effect of district income on legislative responsiveness to constituency ideology in the state legislatures. This work is inspired by recent research which reports that, at the national level, elected leaders (Bartels 2008) and federal policy (Gilens 2005) are much more responsive to the policy preferences of the well-to-do, and that the poor are represented only to the extent that they happen to agree with the wealthy on specific issues. We investigate this troublesome inequality with a new data on the state legislatures. We use comprehensive sets of roll calls from the 1999-2000 and 2003-2004 legislative sessions, and partisan outcomes of the 1998, 2002 and 2008 elections to assess the responsiveness of state legislators to constituency ideology (measured by the presidential vote in the 2000 election). We find, first that responsiveness does increase with district income. However, rather than being an on-going condition, we find a pattern of lagging realignment in the lower income districts. Thus, our principal finding is less about the poorer districts being badly represented than one of increased constituency-based party polarization in the state legislatures. They will increasingly have to contend with the challenges of heightened party/ideological polarization such as those faced by the contemporary Congress.


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