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Economic inequality in the US is pervasive and longstanding. Political participation levels vary significantly by socioeconomic status. Policy outcomes in the US more often align with the preferences of the rich than the poor. To what extent are these trends connected? In our new paper, we propose one answer to this question by examining how local-level income inequality shapes the political participation gap between the affluent and everyone else.
We reveal a clear relationship between local economic inequality and political participation – particularly among affluent Americans. As income inequality in one’s community increases, so too do many forms of political participation among high income residents. But, inequality has little effect on participation among other groups. Consequently, in communities with low levels of inequality, Americans across the income spectrum participate in politics at roughly equal rates, while in communities with higher inequality, the participation of affluent Americans is boosted, producing a substantial gap in the expression of political voice between high and low income Americans.
How does this work? Consider two communities that may seem similar at first glance: Omaha, Nebraska’s zip code 68135 and Greenwich, Connecticut’s zip code 06830. Both localities have about 25,000 residents and median household incomes just over $100,000. Yet, the distribution of income is much more unequal in Greenwich than it is in Omaha and, consequently, residents of these two communities observe substantially different economic realities as they go about their daily lives. More than three times as many residents in Greenwich as Omaha live under the poverty line, yet the median owner-occupied home value in Greenwich is $1.4 million, compared to only $219,500 in Omaha. A tiny proportion of Omaha residents live in multi-family units and almost all homes have two or more vehicles, while almost half of Greenwich residents live in multi-family units and almost half of homes have one or no vehicles available. In short, in Omaha, a community with relatively low inequality, residents receive far less exposure to surroundings that signal there is income inequality in the United States than do residents in higher inequality Greenwich.
Consequently, we theorize that Greenwich residents, like those living in other more unequal communities, will be more likely to participate in politics in order to influence policy. Heightened awareness of inequality could generate class conflict around redistributive policies – pushing high income residents to participate in order to protect their wealth and low income individuals to advocate for greater wealth redistribution. Given the power of perceived group threat, this may occur particularly among wealthy individuals who perceive a threat to their status from their lower-income neighbors. Alternatively, living amidst inequality could spur more affluent Americans as well as those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum to support government action on policies to address income inequality. Either way, community inequality would provoke participation. We expect this to happen more among the affluent than those with lower incomes who may be less likely to believe that their political participation could affect change, who are more likely to be diverted from political participation by their need to address basic necessities, and who may not be as likely to adjust their perceptions of their own economic status when confronted with inequality.
To test our theory, we drew on the American National Election Study’s Restricted Data Files from 2012 and 2016, which provide respondent data at the zip code level, and matched this with US Census data on community characteristics and local inequality by zip code. We evaluated how an individual’s engagement in eleven different forms of political participation (e.g., discussing politics, contacting the government, attending rallies, signing petitions) varied depending on the level of income inequality in their community and on their own economic status.
In short, we find that local inequality increases participation, but only for those in the top half of the income spectrum. Those in the lowest two quintiles of incomes participate in roughly the same number of activities regardless of the level of inequality in their communities. In contrast, those with middle to high incomes participate more when their communities are more unequal. Using our model to predict the number of activities in which an individual is likely to participate in low and high inequality communities (see Figure 1 below), we find that for people in the third and fourth income quintiles, switching from a low inequality community to a high inequality community yields about one more participatory act. This same change in inequality for individuals in the highest income quintile is associated with an increase of two participatory acts. This produces a substantial gap in participation between affluent and lower income Americans in more unequal communities. Furthermore, we confirm this relationship is not due to reverse causality using instrumental variables models discussed at greater length in the paper and supplementary materials.
Our findings indicate that persistent economic inequality in the US at the community level will increase the gap in political participation between the rich and the poor, likely with negative consequences for equal representation in policymaking. Research demonstrates that participatory inequality yields policies that benefit those who participate at higher levels. Therefore, our research suggests the possibility of spirals of inequality in which economic inequality promotes patterns of unequal participation, which lead to further implementation of policies that favor higher status citizens over those with fewer resources. This will increase income inequality and lead to further participatory inequality. While some of our findings suggest that higher levels of participation among the affluent may not exclusively result in greater advocacy for policies that perpetuate inequality, there are many policies on which affluent and middle and low income Americans have diverging preferences. In those cases, we expect that the increased participation of wealthy residents in unequal communities is unlikely to represent the interests of their less privileged neighbors. Economic inequality at the community level has important political consequences.
 Previous research confirms that community income inequality does make wealthy individuals more economically conservative (Sands 2017, Karadja et al. 2017, Trump 2018, Cote et al. 2015), and that privileged social groups respond to perceived threats by changing their political behavior (Jardina 2019, Abrajano & Hajnal 2015).