Are the poor represented in government?

Published: Wednesday, May 15 2013 12:52 p.m. MDT

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In his 2010 New York Times column Paul Krugman, an American economist and Nobel Prize winner, made an observation about some of the differences between the rich and the poor when it comes to electoral politics:

“You see, the rich are different from you and me: they have more influence. It’s partly a matter of campaign contributions, but it’s also a matter of social pressure, since politicians spend a lot of time hanging out with the wealthy. So when the rich face the prospect of paying an extra 3 or 4 percent of their income in taxes, politicians feel their pain — feel it much more acutely, it’s clear, than they feel the pain of families who are losing their jobs, their houses, and their hopes.”

Many agree with Krugman's assessment. In his 2008 book Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age,Larry Bartels, Vanderbilt University professor of political science, shows how elected officials respond to the views of their affluent constituents, but ignore the views of poor people. Specifically, Bartels found that Republican presidents produce much less income growth for middle-class and working-poor families than for affluent families, contributing to growing income inequality. Bartel argues that tax cuts for the wealthy combined with erosion of the minimum wage are examples of policies that created more income inequality.

But a new study from Yale University provides evidence that Krugman and Bartels' have it all wrong. Authors of the study, Eric Brunner, Stephen L. Ross and Ebonya Washington, use data to show that less income does not mean less representation. Three specific findings emerged from their study.

1. The opinions of high- and low-income voters are highly correlated; the legislator’s vote often reflects the desire of both.

2. Differences in representation by income vary by a legislator's party affiliation. Republicans more often vote the will of higher income constituents over lower income constituents; Democratic legislators do the reverse.

3. Differences in representation by income are largely explained by the correlation between constituent income and party affiliation.


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