Poverty and the Vote

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Maria Nagawa, covers the new article by Max Schaub, WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Germany, Acute Financial Hardship and Voter Turnout: Theory and Evidence from the Sequence of Bank Working Days“.

How does poverty affect political participation? There are two competing theories. The low resources of the poor and the power of the elite constrain political participation. On the contrary, deprivation amid increasing inequality angers the poor and spurs their political participation. Because the causes and consequences of poverty are multi-faceted and vary with time, the debate remains largely unresolved. By focusing on short term acute financial hardship, Max Schaub shows that the resource argument wins.

The author’s ingenious design uses particularly long months in the banking cycle that he refers to as Long Month After Short (LMAS). In Germany, monthly salaries are paid on the last weekday of the month (long month) but when salaries are due on a weekend, they are paid on a preceding weekday (short month). LMAS, which is on average 10 percent longer than a regular month, occurs when a long month follows a short month.

The occurrence of LMAS is bound to hit the poor—those earning less than 60 percent of the median household income and consisting of roughly 16 percent of the population, the hardest. The poor are generally unable to plan ahead and therefore smooth out their consumption. When they are suddenly faced with an extra two or three days without income, they find it hard to meet basic needs like rent in a timely way.

LMAS months randomly occur, and households cannot plan for them, creating a scenario with a natural experiment that enables the author to make a causal argument. He compares household voting and voting intention behaviour in LMAS and non-LMAS months. He finds that among the poor, voting intention is up to 5 percentage points lower in LMAS months and up to 11 percentage points lower if the household was interviewed at the end of the month. He further finds that actual turnout is 2 percentage points lower in LMAS compared to non-LMAS months and if elections are held during the last week of the month, turnout is 5 percentage points lower. To provide perspective, 5 percentage points in Germany would translate into more than half a million potential votes.

“By taking measures to reduce financial distress during important political periods or easing voting procedures, countries can enhance political enfranchisement among the poor” Does the occurrence of LMAS differentially impact sub-groups? Because poverty is associated with isolation, we should expect to see less political participation among more isolated people. The author shows that LMAS negatively affects the voting intention of poor people living alone but not those in partnerships. Does this mean single people should ramp up their dating game? Not necessarily. Groups can form along political and economic lines. Poor members of political parties are less affected by LMAS, but the same is not true for members of labor unions.

Interestingly, LMAS negatively affects the participation of the working poor but not the unemployed on government benefits. Government intervention might be mitigating some of the effects of poverty on political participation by smoothing out the spending of the poor. Inequality and unemployment rates also mitigate the effects of LMAS. LMAS has a stronger negative effect on turnout in areas with higher levels of inequality and unemployment.

The author demonstrates that a shortage of resources indeed negatively impacts political participation. He further argues that observed short term effects can have long term consequences for political behavior in the form of sustained political disengagement among the poor. The implications are heightened when we consider the large numbers of the long-term poor both in Europe and in the US. By taking measures to reduce financial distress during important political periods or easing voting procedures, countries can enhance political enfranchisement among the poor.