Social status influences Democrats’ — but not Republicans’ — support for reducing inequality

Dollar symbolWith the United States facing unprecedented levels of economic inequality, new research examines which members of the House of Representatives support legislation to maintain the status quo.

The study, published January 21 in PLoS One, found social status influenced Democrats’ support for government interventions to reduce inequality. Low wealth Democrats supported legislation to reduce economic inequality significantly more than both high wealth Democrats and Republicans.

“Whereas Republicans tended to sponsor legislation that supports economic inequality regardless of their wealth, wealth predicted sponsoring behavior for Democrats,” the researchers explained. “Specifically, high wealth Democrats tended to sponsor fewer pieces of legislation that reduce economic inequality than did their lower wealth counterparts.”

The study was based on publically available data for 190 Democrats and 240 Republicans in the House.

The researchers compared the average wealth, race, and gender of each member of the House to their support for 13 pieces of legislation that were considered between 2010 and 2012. Many of the bills — such as the Paying a Fair Share Act — sought to decrease economic inequality, while a few bills — such as the Freedom to Invest Act — would have increased inequality.

The fact that Republicans were far more likely to oppose measures to reduce economic inequality regardless of their wealth was likely due to their political ideology.

Among Democrats, on the other hand, support for reducing economic inequality was influenced by wealth.

Studies on the effects of social status help explain why wealthier Democrats oppose measures to reduce economic inequality, the researchers said, noting that high status individuals are more likely to endorse meritocratic beliefs.

“Status disparities force high status individuals to explain why they hold a potentially unfair advantage in society relative to their low status counterparts,” they explained.

High status individuals are particularly likely to attribute successes to their own talent and virtue rather than to favorable circumstances. They are more likely to believe the world is fair is and that wealth is based on merit.

“That high status individuals believe economic inequality is caused by individual merit, rather than societal dysfunctions, suggests that these individuals would be less likely to support contextual policy interventions aimed at reducing economic inequality.”