The Christian Science Monitor alerted me the other day to research undertaken by two social scientists, Peter Enns and Nathan Kelly, who claim to have discovered a paradoxical tendency of poor people to become more fiscally conservative, to oppose measures for redistributing wealth, as the income gap between rich and poor grows. Their work derives from inquiries into whether inequality is "self-reinforcing" and whether politics is a factor in greater inequality. Politics is accepted as a factor on the common-sense ground that political action can redistribute wealth. The question then becomes whether politics exacerbates inequality because of a flaw in the political system -- whether inequality increases because politicians are unresponsive to demands from the poor for redistribution, or because the poor have no effective means to influence politicians. Enns and Kelly have worked out formulae that I'm not equipped to critique, but which tell them that an unresponsive political system is not automatically to blame for widening income gaps because the poor are not demanding redistributive measures to the extent we might expect. Instead, when inequality reaches a certain point, the poor seem to have no greater desire for redistributive measures than the wealthiest Americans.
If this finding seems counterintuitive, the researchers' explanation is predictable enough. Without pointing the finger at Fox News or talk radio, Enns and Kelly suggest that, if anything, the media reinforce inequality, though not necessarily by means of ideological propaganda. After disproving the premise that the poor might be simply guilty of false consciousness or lack of information -- their statistics show that the poor realize that the income gap is growing -- they suggest that straight news reflects the changing social reality. Since "the decline in inequality prior to 1970 ... was driven primarily by increasing incomes at the bottom of the income distribution," they argue that news would have "generated stories emphasizing government's role in education and job creation" simply because that's what appeared to be actually happening, and the news would increase people's confidence in government's effectiveness. By contrast, "given that rising inequality since the 1970s has been driven in large part by gains at the top of the income distribution," news media "may have increasingly emphasized stories of individualism," because individual achievement was what appeared to be actually happening. Such news stories, they suggest, would generate "a negative link between rising inequality and public opinion liberalism." This would also belie the conservative-media narrative of pervasive liberal bias prior to the advent of Rush Limbaugh on the radio and Fox News on cable television, since that narrative presumes that the "liberal media" would only report on the suffering of the poor during, say, the Reagan administration.
Whether such elaborate media-dependent explanations for the Enns-Kelly trend are necessary is debatable. It's been said elsewhere that most people, regardless of income level, become less willing to share, and far less willing to see allegedly undeserving people share the collective wealth, in tough economic times. Americans in particular may be more ready than other people to indict their neighbors as freeloaders in a crunch, though they are probably more ready to do so now than they were eighty years ago, and that fact, if true, would require some explanation. Another possible factor is an increased sense of dependence on the part of the poor. Here media propaganda may be a factor, since the conservative media have tried hard to teach the public a relationship between government spending and private-sector layoffs and outsourcing. Class is unlikely to determine whether anyone scapegoats politics for poor economic performance. Indeed, a lack of class consciousness is arguably the defining characteristic of Americans among the world's peoples. People don't want to think of themselves as working-class or poor, and that refusal to face facts may help explain the researchers' findings. On the other hand, the Monitor itself noted that a decrease in confidence in government, which tends to be identified with a conservative mentality, can result from simple dissatisfaction with ineffective government. If government seems incapable of accomplishing anything, people are bound to wonder what good it is in general or on principle. Of course, given how conservatives themselves argue that today's poor aren't really poor by historic or global standards, maybe these findings are still a matter of society not having grown unequal enough and people not having suffered enough to react the way you'd think they should. Enns and Kelly should test their models again a few years from now and tell us what they find.