Economic Inequality, Economic Segregation, and Political Participation

Matthew B Schroeder

Research output: ThesisMaster's Thesis


This research investigates the effect of economic inequality on political participation. Differential rates of political participation are an important way in which citizens act politically. A large literature on democratization argues that inequality erodes the sense of commonality and mutual trust that underpins democratic self-governance, and there is some evidence that inequality lowers rates for political participation even in modern democratic societies. But these claims have recently been contradicted by other researches who claim that inequality fosters the sort of conflict and debate on which democracy thrives. I propose that these two opposing literatures can be reconciled by attending to the scale at which inequality exists. Inequality among close neighbors might lower participation by reducing interpersonal trust and the opportunities for political discussion, inequality among people in different neighborhoods might stead increase participation by heightening political conflict, and inequality among people in different counties might reduce participation rates by undermining the feeling of consensus and shared fate on which democratic governance rests. I attempt to unravel this complex dynamic with measures of economic segregation, created by decomposing total inequality into three portions: inequality across counties and within states; inequality across neighborhoods and within counties; and inequality across individuals within neighborhoods. I then link these measures to individual-level survey data from the American National Election Studies and the roper Social and Political Trends dataset. Contrary to my suppositions, inequality among close neighbors increase voter registration while decreasing participation in endeavors other than political campaigns. Furthermore, these effects are particularly strong among-low-income people, thus altering income differences in participation rates. Inequality across neighborhoods, in contrast, tends to exacerbate the tendency of rich citizens to vote more than poor citizens. And inequality across counties undermines participates in electoral campaigns, regardless of one's income. Although the mechanisms underlying these relationships are unclear from these analyses, it is evident that "inequality" has no univalent effect on political participation; rather, it depends on the scale at which inequality exists.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Place of PublicationUniversity Park, PA
StatePublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes


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