Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Spencer Piston's "Class Attitudes in America"

Spencer Piston is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Boston University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Class Attitudes in America: Sympathy for the Poor, Resentment of the Rich, and Political Implications, and reported the following:
Political analysts often scapegoat the public for government’s stingy orientation toward poor people in the United States. The logic is as follows: Americans must not want government to help the poor, or government would not be able to get away with passing policies that do so little to help poor people.

In Class Attitudes in America, I challenge this understanding of public opinion. Analyzing nationally representative survey data, I show that majorities of Americans are sympathetic toward the poor, and sympathy for the poor leads many Americans to support downwardly redistributive policies.

Sympathy for the poor can also cause Americans to support candidates for public office perceived to take actions that will benefit the poor. On page 99, I present the results of a survey experiment in which some subjects are randomly assigned to read about a political candidate who is described as unlikely to transfer resources to the poor if elected. Other subjects are randomly assigned to read about a candidate who is identical to the first candidate except that he is likely to transfer resources to the poor.

Contrary to some existing accounts of public opinion in the United States, I find that the candidate is actually more popular when he is likely to help the poor – and, as shown on page 99, this pattern is driven by those Americans who are most sympathetic to the poor.

Why, then, doesn’t government do more to transfer resources to poor people? The simple answer is that this is yet another case in which government does not pass policies that majorities of the public prefer. Policies that would help the poor are – with some important exceptions – generally popular in the United States. And yet government continues to do much less than it might to transfer resources to those who need them most. I argue, therefore, that political analysts should not be so quick to blame the American public for what politicians do. Just the opposite: we should ask why more politicians aren’t listening to those they are supposed to represent.
Visit Spencer Piston's website.

--Marshal Zeringue