Study: Politicians Do Care About Poor People

The Cheddar Revolution between Wisconsin's public unions and the governor over the future of collective bargaining has very little to do with this year's budget deficit (Wisconsin is filling the gap by restructuring its debt) and very much to do with political influence. The union's supporters can't understand why anybody would try to take away labor's ability to negotiate livable wages and adequate benefits. On the other hand, Team Walker sees public unions as a pernicious feedback loop, where unions negotiate extraordinary benefits from taxpayers, plow the money into electing partial representatives, and continue to squeeze the elected representatives for even more money.

This is a story about the relationship between American politicians and the middle class. Some liberals suspect that politicians don't care much about average Americans. Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels found that US senators adhere to the desires of high-income groups much more than the rest of the country. But a new study from NBER comes to the opposite conclusion: "The views of residents of both higher and lower income neighborhoods are represented by their legislators."

Analyzing the voting behavior of California state legislators on 77 proposals on which both the legislature and the public cast ballots, we find first that the opinions of higher and lower income voters within a district are highly correlated and thus it is impossible to represent the views of one group and not also represent the views of the other.

And to the question of whether one income group is better represented than the other, our descriptive analysis suggests that the answer depends on representative party. Republican legislators vote more along the lines of the views of their constituents residing in high income neighborhoods. Democratic legislative voting is better predicted by the voters of lower income areas ... Democratic and Republican legislators represent voters at opposite ends of the income distribution because they represent voters at opposite ends of the ideology distribution.

As Brendan Nyhan points out on Twitter, this begs the question: If the most popular deficit-reduction tactic is a special tax for millionaires (81% called it acceptable in an NBC poll), why doesn't anybody talk about it in Washington?