Income Inequality Makes The Poor More Conservative: Study

Income inequality makes the poor more conservative -- more likely to support smaller government and actually to perpetuate income inequality, two academics argue in a report released earlier this year.

The report, "Inequality and the Dynamics of Public Opinion: The Self-Reinforcing Link Between Economic Inequality and Mass Preferences" (pdf), authored by Nathan J. Kelly and Peter K. Enns, says income inequality is a self-perpetuating condition: As it increases, public opinion among both the rich and the poor shifts increasingly in its favor (hat tip to Economist's View).

The authors' conclusion, which they say is likely to be "surprising to many readers," is that "both the rich and the poor respond to rising inequality by shifting in a conservative direction." This conservatism includes a desire to cut government programs such as welfare.

Previous studies, the authors say, argued that the poor were not supportive of inequality. But, after analyzing thousands of individual responses to survey questions during the period from 1952 to 2006, the authors have concluded that the push for smaller government actually comes as much from the bottom of society as from the top -- and that it increases as the poor grow increasingly worse off.

Right away the authors address the most obvious challenge to their argument: that the poor aren't actually aware of the degree of inequality in the country. Indeed, as a report last month showed, Americans vastly underestimate wealth inequality and, without realizing it, support a massive redistribution of wealth.

In response, the authors point to survey results from 1987 to 2000 that show that as actual inequality increased, the poor became more aware of wealth differences than the rich. To drive the point home, they put this sentence in italics:

"It is certainly not the case that those at the bottom become more conservative in response to increases in inequality because they do not notice what is actually happening."

(Still, the September report showed there was little variation in perception of inequality across socioeconomic groups.)

The media portrayal of economic growth may help shape public opinion among the poor, the authors say. Citing a previous report, they say that during good economic times (often when inequality increases), media stories focus on individual achievement, influencing the minds of the poor and inciting their opposition to government programs, even when the poor themselves stand to benefit from those programs.

The authors also offer this caveat:

For a variety of reasons, the opinions of the poor may be the most uncertain and thus most susceptible to opinion manipulation. This is an important aspect of the "unequal democracy" perspective that comports with our findings and deserves future research. After all, if the poor and the wealthy update their opinions synchronously because the poor simply follow the rich, this is hardly good news for democracy.