Sunday, 3 April 2016

Changes over time in attitudes towards redistribution in the U.S.

In November last year, I wrote a post about how New Zealanders' attitudes towards redistribution had changed over time (based on this Philip Morrison article in Policy Quarterly). A new article published in the journal Economic Modelling (ungated version here), by Maria Grazia Pittau, Alessio Farcomeni, and Roberto Zelli (all Sapienza University of Rome), takes a more thorough look at similar data on preferences for redistribution from the U.S. General Social Survey covering the period 1978 to 2010.

Importantly, Pittau et al. use multi-level modelling to disentangle the cohort effects from the changes over time (a solution to the age-old problem of distinguishing between age, cohort and period effects). I hadn't considered multi-level models as a solution to this problem before, but apparently it is increasingly common (with repeated cross-sectional data).

In terms of results, the overall picture is fairly uninteresting. Attitudes to redistribution have barely changed over time, as shown in the figure below (when the proportion of respondents supporting redistribution is on the y-axis, the solid line is the average, the dotted line is the linear time trend, and each observation is actually the average of a five-year birth cohort).

The more interesting results are summarised in the conclusion of the paper, and probably confirm a lot of priors:
– Aging influences redistributive attitudes. However, support for redistribution among older people substantially decreased in the last four decades.
– Personal income has a strong performance as a predictor over the whole period, and rich people tend to oppose redistribution more strongly over time.
– There are two different time patterns for education: a downward trend for less-educated American citizens and an upward trend for the highest education level. University or college graduates increase their probability to be pro-redistribution constantly and significantly over time, while non-high school graduates reduce their likelihood persistently.
– Systematic differences between Democratic and Republican voters have enlarged in the past thirty years. Americans are much more polarized on redistributive issues by self-declared party affiliation than they were in the past.
– Ethnicity is generally regarded as a driving factor in mapping preferences towards redistribution. Our findings however show that ethnicity matters at least until the 1990s but ethnic group preferences gradually move closer over time and in the 2000s the gap seems to close.
– Further investigation confirms that in the late 1970s the racial gap was much more important than the political gap in shaping preferences for redistribution, but it was the reverse in the 2000s.
It would be interesting to see what a similar analysis for New Zealand would reveal, especially given Morrison's finding that New Zealanders' attitudes have been shifted away from a preference for redistribution. And it would be also interesting to look at home ownership as an important variable in terms of attitudes to home ownership (following Phil Morrison's subsequent suggestion that home ownership is a neglected variable in the inequality debate in general).

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