State-Level Income Inequality
and American Elections
From the late 1960s onward, the United States as a whole has experienced rising wage and income inequality. But the relevant political unit in America is not the nation; it is the state. To search for effects of economic inequality on political behavior in a federal system, we need to examine developments below the national level—to assess relative changes in inequality in the different states. Rising inequality within states reflects the national trend, but variation occurs from state to state and year to year (Langer 1999; Bernard and Jensen 1998; Bernstein, McNichol, and Lyons 2006). If inequality has political consequences, it may be possible to detect those consequences in election outcomes.
Election outcomes, in turn, depend on two factors: who votes, and who they vote for. So in this chapter1 we examine whether differences in income inequality at the state level are related to differences in voter turnout and in voter choice.
Why might inequality affect voter turnout? Brady (2004, p. 668) presents a speculative vote-mobilizing argument:
An increase in inequality will not only reduce the incomes of lower-
class families but also change that group’s political circumstances.
With the distressing change in social facts, lower-income people
might decide to increase their political activity to redress the situa-
tion. They might decide that government should be used to adjust the
degree of inequality by adjusting people’s capacities, opportunities,
luck or decision-making. It seems possible that lower-class activity
might increase in these circumstances. It also seems possible that
upper-class participation might increase in response.