What’s the Matter With Poor Voters? A Reconsideration

The great but frustrated hope of liberals is that people will vote their supposed class interest, that is, that people of modest incomes will vote for higher taxes (on others) and bigger government.  It is a matter of frustration for liberals when the working class doesn’t vote for Democrats: see Thomas Frank’s famous What’s the Matter With Kansas?  (Actually, don’t see it; it’s stupid; one can just as easily ask, What’s the Matter With the Upper West Side?, where rich liberals vote for candidates who want to raise their income taxes.  Voting against economic self-interest on the Upper West Side is taken as a sign of enlightenment rather than the interest-denying stupidity that is attributed to the GOP-voting working classes of the red states.)

This is the fear of too many conservatives, too, as was seen in Mitt Romney’s disastrous comment about how he could not compete for the votes of the “47 percent” who pay no federal income tax.  The thesis that dependency or reliance on government will inexorably drive the votes of all such voters turns out to be just as popular on the right as it is on the left.  I wonder if the time hasn’t come to challenge this conclusion, for it assumes that everyone who is currently dependent on government aid likes it or wants to remain dependent.

I was recalling over the weekend for an audience of mostly liberals the moment that George McGovern realized he was going to lose his Senate seat in the 1980 election: he was in a supermarket checkout line in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where two women in line ahead of him told him that although they were lifelong Democrats, they weren’t going to vote for him this time because he was “too liberal.”  They then proceeded to purchase their groceries with food stamps.

This anecdote reminds of why Bill Clinton in 1992 emphasized “ending welfare as we know it,” and, if you look back closely, you can see he was attempting to revive, in a subtle and indirect way, the older idea of the “deserving poor.”  He had to be subtle in this because anything more direct would have riled up the left.  But it was the flip side of his very effective slogan of helping people who “worked hard and played by the rules.”

Survey research shows that resistance to expansions of the welfare state often comes from low-income voters.  Despite the long effort of the left to legitimize (and then expand) redistribution, there remains a residue of the sentiments of dignity and honor even among many people who are dependent on government.  To be sure, the agenda of egalitarian redistribution has made significant inroads since the 1980s and 1990s, thus preparing the way for Obama’s Great Leap Forward, but conservatives should not be so hasty in writing off the entire population of people who do not pay federal income tax or who are beneficiaries of government programs.  It’s not just bad politics; it also sells short some bedrock traits of the American character.

These thoughts are prompted in part by some recent reflections by economist Dwight Lee, a friend I haven’t seen in a long time.  I’ve always thought Dwight was a bit too much of a gear-drive economist (i.e., starting from the premise of “economic man” that all behavior and decisions are decided by rational calculation of self-interest—a view that is under serious attack these days by the newfangled “behaviorial economics”), but his new piece departs from a straight-up application of the gear-drive view by acknowledging that “beliefs” (he doesn’t quite call them “moral” beliefs, however) are more important than narrow calculations of self-interest:

The importance of one’s beliefs explains why historically much of the political resistance to welfare payments came from the poor. Until well into the 20th century it was widely considered insulting to one’s dignity to rely on charity and most people had to be in desperate need to accept it. This created a serious problem for people who wanted to use government to transfer wealth to the poor. Even those who could have realized immediate financial benefit from such an expansion commonly voted against it because they believed public welfare would ultimately harm recipients by undermining their sense of responsibility and self-esteem. The personal satisfaction they realized from acting on their beliefs, and voting against transfers, was far greater than any financial benefits they could expect to receive by voting for them.

Lee’s full argument traverses some of the usual economic territory on voting behavior that I find too narrow, but I agree with his conclusion:

The widespread concern that an increasing numbers of people who pay no federal income tax are being attracted to the polls to vote themselves benefits is unjustified. . .  There is no doubt that far too many people have become dependent on government transfers, but that does not explain why they go to the polls, or how they vote. People’s desire to vote for what they believe is in the public interest is what explains why they vote and how they vote. Paradoxically, and fortunately, that motivation is our best hope for reversing the growth in transfers.