UT professor finds economic inequality is self-reinforcing

When the gap between the haves and have-nots gets larger, one would think the have-nots would want more help, most likely in the form of government programs, to fight rising inequities.

Not so, says Nate Kelly, assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Kelly, along with Peter Enns of Cornell University, conducted a study analyzing and public opinion toward government intervention. The study has been published in the October edition of the American Journal of Political Science and can be viewed by visiting this link.

What he found defies expectations.

"When inequality in America rises, both the rich and the poor become more conservative in their ideologies. It is counterintuitive, but rather than generating opinion shifts that would make redistributive policies more likely, increased economic inequality produces a conservative response in public sentiment," said Kelly.

As the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, both sides reduce their support for government programs such as welfare. This desire only increases as the economic gap widens. Therefore, inequality is a self-perpetuating phenomenon.

"Economic inequality is, in fact, self-reinforcing. When economic inequality is high or low, it is likely to produce even higher or lower future levels of inequality. We find that economic inequality is self-reinforcing, not due to lack of responsiveness to the poor, but to how the preferences of both the rich and the poor respond to changes in ," said Kelly.

The researchers came to this conclusion by analyzing hundreds of thousands of responses to survey questions from 1952 to 2006.

"Subjects who were poor were explicitly asked if they thought the government spent too much money on welfare and more of them answered 'yes' during times of high inequality," said Kelly.

This isn't because the poor do not know their financial situation. In fact, the authors found that the poor were more acutely aware of wealth differences than the rich to the point of overstatement. Instead, the authors speculate that elites such as political leaders play a large role in distracting and shaping public opinion about issues such as welfare.

The authors also believe the media may be a key factor in how government programs are framed in the public eye. For instance, in good economic times the media focus on individual achievement, which may influence the poor to oppose government programs. During bad economic times, the media focuses on people being down on their luck and the government helping them.

Kelly is currently working to determine the causes of his surprising finding. He hopes his next discovery may help halt the seemingly inexorable rise in inequality.

"What is clear from our work is that the self-reinforcing nature of economic inequality is real, and that we must look beyond simple defects in the policy responsiveness of American democracy to understand why this is the case."

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Oct 22, 2010
government spent too much money on welfare and more of them answered 'yes' during times of high inequality
Yes, too much corporate welfare, would be an accurate response.

Oct 23, 2010
Having done taxes for several years, I think this can be explained by the fact that about the lower 15 to 20% of people, in terms of income, are often too stupid to know what benefits them individually in short term or long term.

Oct 23, 2010
It's a result of gradient driven reality in aether model, again. Every density fluctuation of foamy environment is behaving like optical lens, which concentrates energy waves from outside into itself, thus growing in size gradually in avalanche-like mechanism.

The wealthy people and nations have more money for buying/development of more effective technologies, which allows them to become rich even faster until they're unable to maintain their own wealth and the subsequent social revolution leads to phase transform in society, similar to collapse of stars, which are growing with accretion of matter from outside - most of value concentrated during previous period gets scattered into environment in cataclysmic event and whole process is starting again. Actually the more close is the universe to human scale, the more the asymmetry of material evolution in time dimension (an entropic time arrow) becomes pronounced.

Oct 23, 2010
The similar evolution occurs during heavy rains, as the large droplets are merging into account of smaller ones. Can the social system behave like the droplets of physical fluid? You decide...


And what such models are good for? So far the war events and social disasters were considered as a chaotic events, which cannot be predicted in the same way, like stock market crisis. But more careful research of emergent behavior of large physical systems learns us, the prediction of such events is actually possible, so we can avoid them for future.



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