Economic Inequality and Political Participation

LWVMA Co-President Anne Borg set the scene for a panel discussion on “Economic Inequality and Political Participation — Whose Voice Is Heard?” on March 19 at Bentley University in Waltham. She asked bluntly: Is the rising concentration of wealth compatible with democracy? Can ordinary citizens still affect public policy?

The panelists were Noah Berger, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center; Katherine Levine Einstein, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Boston University; and Kay Schlozman, J. Joseph Moakley Professor of Political Science at Boston College. Juliet Gainsborough, Associate Professor of Political Science at Bentley, served as moderator.

Berger started off by reciting some familiar statistics. From 1973 to 2010, real wages for the bottom 20% declined, the median wage stagnated, and the wages of the top 5% has risen 1.29%, with part of that due to a rise of a whopping 4.2% for the top 1%. While some say such inequality is needed to incentivize economic growth, we have only to look back to the three decades following World War II to see that this is not true. (Asked later in the discussion whether those three decades were merely a historical anomaly, Berger admitted the possibility but pointed out that they were also a period when certain policies were in place that have since been dismantled, including a much more progressive income tax and better-enforced labor laws.)

Productivity (output per worker) has risen consistently at an almost constant rate since the end of WW II. Until the early 1970s, labor wage growth tracked this rise in productivity, but then it flatlined even as productivity continued to rise. Berger ascribed this to de-unionization: labor is no longer party to the discussions of what to do with the profits arising from increasing productivity. In 1968, the purchasing power of the minimum wage was $21,700 in today’s dollars; today it is only $16,000. Had it kept up with inflation, the minimum wage today would be $10.86/hour. Had it kept up with the growth in productivity, it would be $15.63.

Turning to how economic inequality interacts with political participation, Schlozman presented data showing that political participation is strongly correlated with socioeconomic status (or SES, an indicator based on income, education, and occupation.) In the underlying studies, political activity was defined as broadly as possible, but it did require at least one activity beyond merely voting—anything from serving on a local board or commission to contacting an elected official to signing a petition. Participation in a group protest or demonstration was the only type of political activity that did not exhibit this SES correlation. Schlozman also noted that in the last generation, political energy has been most evident around middle-class support for conservative causes (e.g., the Tea Party and the religious right.)

Looking at organizations involved in political activity, she found that businesses account for 53% of all such organizations along with 77% of political contributions, while public interest groups (again defined as broadly as possibly) represent 4% of the total, contributing 2% of the funding, and organizations representing the underprivileged account for just 2% of the total and 2% of contributions.

Einstein observed that in poor states, the rich vote more conservatively than they do in richer states, and in diverse communities, whites vote more conservatively than in more homogeneous communities.

Following the presentation of these dismal statistics, the discussion turned to solutions. Berger was upbeat about Massachusetts. He pointed out that health care reform in MA was driven by popular demand for universal coverage. Recent increases in minimum wage and paid sick time resulted from getting enough signatures to put those on the ballot; the threat of its being on the ballot inspired the Legislature to act on the minimum wage, something that affects one in five workers in MA.

Einstein talked about activity at the local level across the country, but she agreed that the communities that most need local investment of both money and time are the least able to provide them. Unequal political participation makes it harder to elect legislators who will promote measures that could help level the playing field, and in a vicious circle this makes it still harder to equalize political participation. Schlozman pointed out that the emphasis on raising money translates into more time spent by legislators with people with deep pockets, whose problems are not those of the rest of the population. This effectively limits their agenda, even if it is not actual corruption.

There were several questions from the audience about the potential impact of campaign finance reform and public funding of elections. Einstein observed that the impact of money in politics is “context dependent”; where there are few or no sources of information apart from paid advertising, the impact is greater. Berger believes that there are limits to what CFR or public funding can accomplish, and that grassroots organizing is much more important, pointing again to successful initiatives in Massachusetts and the potential for further progress by this route, such as instituting a more progressive income tax.

The panelists agreed that democracy has to be learned. Einstein noted that local political participation is not as SES-stratified as at higher levels. Minority or low-income voices can sometimes prevail in local political action. Schlozman added that working in organizations is very powerful. By no means does such work have to be in a political organization; skills learned working on a nonpolitical project are transferable.

Finally, there was a set of questions about the impact of “social media”. Einstein felt that they were not all that helpful, as participation tends to be stratified and self-selected. In response to a question about social media reducing the time commitment needed to engage in a “political activity”, Schlozman brought up a study of political participation by gender that demonstrated conclusively that time available is not a predictor of political participation. It was also noted that the access to media to some extent (particularly at the bottom) is again correlated with SES.

The forum was taped and will be made available online through the LWVMA web site.

Kathy Campbell