Understanding Economic Biases in Representation: Income, Resources, and Policy Representation in the 110th House

By Ellis, Christopher | Political Research Quarterly, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Understanding Economic Biases in Representation: Income, Resources, and Policy Representation in the 110th House


Ellis, Christopher, Political Research Quarterly


Abstract

This article explores the extent, and possible causes, of income-based biases in representation of citizens by members of the 110th Congress. The author finds that the preferences of wealthier citizens are modestly but significantly better reflected in the choices of their congressional representatives than are the preferences of poorer citizens. More importantly, the author shows that education, political sophistication, political engagement, ethnicity, and other sociodemographic factors can explain only a small part of this representation gap. Biases in representation across income lines appear to be driven by income alone, or at least not by politically relevant factors correlated with income.

Keywords

public opinion, representation, inequality

A substantial body of research shows that the electorate's policy preferences are well (if certainly not perfectly) represented in legislative behavior and policy outcomes. This research has typically dealt with aggregated preferences of the entire electorate (e.g., Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson 2002; Wlezien 2004), explicitly precluding the possibility that certain types of citizens might be better represented than others. But spurred in part by the American Political Science Association's (2004) Task Force on Inequality, scholars have paid increasing attention to the topic of equality of representation, particularly across income lines. There remains substantial debate over the nature of income-based biases in representation, with some arguing that preferences of richer citizens are substantially better represented than those of the poor and others suggesting that representational biases are minimal (see, e.g., Bartels 2006, 2008; Gilens 2005, 2011; Soroka and Wlezien 2010; Rigby and Wright 2011; Erikson and Bhatti 2011).

More importantly, despite the growing line of work exploring the extent of income-based biases in policy representation, there has been little theoretical or empirical consideration of the factors that might lead the preferences of wealthier citizens to be better reflected in policy the evaluation of possible substantive reforms that might help to equalize political influence across income lines.

This article takes a first step toward addressing this issue, working to shed light on the roles that political resources, political engagement, and sociodemographic factors play in driving income-based biases in representation. I develop measures of dyadic representation of citizens by their congressional representatives in the 110th House and then use these measures to assess the degree to which wealthier citizens' preferences are more congruent than poorer citizens' preferences with the voting behavior of their members of Congress (MCs) and the degree to which such biases in representation are driven by politically consequential factors correlated with income, as opposed to income itself.

I find evidence of differences in representation across income lines: MC voting behavior in general, and votes on important bills in particular, tends to correspond more closely to the preferences of wealthier than poorer constituents. Representation gaps are small, given that differences in preferences across income lines are themselves small but systematic. In addition, I find wealthier citizens' greater levels of education, political knowledge, political activity, voting, and other relevant factors can explain only a small part of these gaps. Politically engaged and knowledgeable wealthy citizens are better represented than the comparably engaged and knowledgeable poor, and MCs tend to represent wealthy citizens who share their party affiliation better than poorer citizens who also share that affiliation.

This article makes three contributions. First, it contributes to the ongoing debate regarding the extent of economic inequalities in representation, providing one of the first studies of income and policy representation within the U. …

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