Let’s end the myth that poor and working class people don’t support redistribution

For some people this isn’t going to be a surprise, in fact they might wonder why I’m bothering to write about it. For others this will contradict cherished contrarian wisdom. But yes, I am here to tell you that the empirical evidence suggests that those who are not rich are more likely to believe the government should distribute money away from the rich, and to the poor.

Let’s start with tax. It’s sometimes said that the poor and working class don’t support higher taxes on the rich. However, an aggregated series of Gallup polls found that approximately two thirds of Americans from households earning under 100,000 a year support higher taxes on the rich. Only 30% of those earning over 250,000 dollars a year do. That’s a very large difference, but remember also that it’s based on a single economic variable (household income), a model including more data about socioeconomic position than just family income, such as profession and perceived likelihood of future upward or downward mobility, would presumably be even more powerful.

Regarding redistribution generally, Elvire Guillaud compiles data across 33 countries of a survey asking: “On the whole, do you think it should or should not be the government’s responsibility to reduce income differences between the rich and the poor”. Occupation, family income, economic mobility, perception of one’s own class position and employment status all had significant effects on support for redistribution as measured by the above question.

The survey also tracked several other questions you might think relevant to a person’s disposition on redistribution but not directly constitutive of their socioeconomic status including gender, religion, marital status and age. Let us be clear, these are politically important socioeconomic variables that effect views on numerous issue-polling questions. Despite that all were insignificant excepting a moderate effect for gender and a relatively small effect for religious affiliation (but not church attendance)To me it is almost as interesting that so many of these demographic big hitters didn’t have an effect as that so many economic variables did.

These effects weren’t just statistically significant either, they were large. Because the question Guillaud asked is relatively milquetoast (most people think the government has some re-distributive role), there was relatively high support among all social groups, but even so, differences were stark between income groups and professions. To use one illustrative figure, only 18% of machine workers disagreed or strongly disagreed that the government had a responsibility to redistribute, whereas double the proportion of managers opposed a re-distributive role for the government. It’s perhaps a shame that the survey didn’t ask something more divisive such as ‘should the government expand its re-distributive programs’.

The notion that the poor don’t really support redistribution takes many guises and serves a number of ideologies. For example, it has been article A of evidence for the notion that the poor have ‘failed’ left-of-centre parties, and must be abandoned in favour of the professional classes. It is true that in some countries working class support for centre-left parties has been falling for decades (I have yet to find a good global analysis of the topic). I would note though that this same period has coincided with a reduction in support for re-distributive policies by the centre-left, even as the working class continue to support these policies. I would suggest that before trying to paint the working class as gullible rubes of the conservatives who seek to take bread from their mouths, the establishment left should consider its own drift away from support for re-distributive policies, for working class support of redistribution remains high.

Regardless of the ideological underpinnings of the idea though, it’s simply false.

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