People, ideas, and discoveries that impact North Carolina and the world

November 2008

Is Class Warfare Real?

By Matt Shipman

The election is right around the corner, and voters around the country have been subjected to politicians, pundits and commercials laden with allegations of class warfare and claims about which candidates cater to the rich and which candidates will best serve the interests of the poor and the middle class. But a new study, co-authored by North Carolina State University researcher Dr. Chris Ellis, shows that it would be impossible for Congress and the White House to cater solely to any socioeconomic group – because people's preferences tend to be overwhelmingly similar when it comes to how the federal government should spend its money.

Class warfareThe study shows "even if government wanted to respond only to the interests of the rich, it couldn't," Ellis says, "because the rich and the poor tend to share similar political viewpoints – at least on economic issues."

"This does not mean that the government is actually acting in the best interests of the poor," Ellis says, "only that what the poor want is similar to what the rich want in terms of how the government appropriates its funds." For example, the public's views of what the federal government should do with respect to education, health care and the environment are similar regardless of socioeconomic level. Ellis notes, however, that social issues – such as abortion – were not considered in the study.

In the study, Ellis and his co-author Dr. Joseph Ura used data from the long-running General Social Survey to measure public opinion on government spending from 1973 to 2006 and found that political sentiment was very similar between the various socioeconomic groups. Basically, trends toward becoming more liberal or more conservative tended to take place at the same time among rich, poor and middle-class voters. Ellis explains that the trends happened at the same time because both rich and poor responded to changes in the nation's economic health, or the actions of the federal government, in broadly similar ways. Ellis is an assistant professor of political science at NC State. Ura is an assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M University.

The study concludes that the federal government acts on the preferences of all income groups either because it can't tell the difference between the preferences of the rich versus the poor, or because officeholders wish to represent the desires of the public as a whole. The study, "Income, Preferences, and the Dynamics of Policy Responsiveness," was published in the Oct. 3 issue of the journal Political Science and Politics