AJPS Author Summary: The Two Income-Participation Gaps

Author Summary by Christopher Ojeda

AJPS Author Summary - The Two Income‐Participation Gaps

It is well-established in the United States that the rich participate in politics more than the poor. Given that income shapes how much Americans pay into and get out of the system, whose voices are heard by policymakers is of real consequence. But what does it mean to be rich or poor? Political scientists typically define these terms using household income in the year prior to the behavior being studied. For example, scholars might assess the income-participation gap by correlating income in 2015 with turnout in the 2016 presidential election.

This approach, however, overlooks Americans’ economic backgrounds. Yet given what we know about the long-term ramifications of childhood poverty, it seems likely that whether someone grew up in a rich or poor family affects whether they engage in politics. Many of the explanations offered for the income-participation gap—disparities in political interest, education, social networks, and mobilization by political parties—are rooted in adolescence and young adulthood, suggesting that economic background may be quite important.

To test whether economic background affects participation, I analyzed six survey-based studies that included measures of each respondent’s current income, economic background, and voter turnout. Some studies measured economic background by asking respondents to recall their family’s income from when they were an adolescent. Other studies interviewed respondents and their parents every year or two from childhood to adulthood and asked about current income each time; this approach provided me with more precise and reliable accounts of economic background.

Irrespective of measure, I consistently found that respondents who grew up in rich homes voted more often than those who grew up in poor homes. This difference remained even after accounting for factors like current income, gender, race, age, parental education, church attendance, and marital status. The results also indicated that economic background matters because it shapes important predictors of participation, such as interest in politics, partisan strength, education, health, and current income.

Altogether, the results reveal that there are two income-participation gaps: one that arises from inequalities in current income and another that arises from inequalities in economic background. That the income-participation gap originates in childhood—well before individuals have a political voice—should magnify our concerns about this problem. Even for those who achieve the American Dream and leave behind their class, the negative effects of growing up poor linger.

About the Author: Christopher Ojeda is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee. “The Two Income‐Participation Gaps” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.