March 22, 2013; Los Angeles Times

How did it happen that the U.S. budget deficit has become the primary focus of policymakers over the last two years when multiple voter polls have suggested that this issue is not Americans’ top concern? When the budget deficit issue gained primary bipartisan focus in early 2011, just 12% of Americans in Gallup polls cited federal debt as the nation’s top problem. Across these polls, two to three times as many respondents cited unemployment/jobs as the biggest challenge.

Could it be that the minority of voters concerned about the deficit have an outsized influence on politics? To answer this question, Benjamin I. Page and Larry M. Bartels, of Northwestern University and Vanderbilt University, respectively, conducted research on how political attitudes of the very wealthy mirror or differ from those of average Americans. While the study was small, it revealed that the issues of interest to the wealthy are substantially different.

Page and Bartels surveyed the Chicago area’s “1%” about their political attitudes and priorities, targeting top wealth-holders with an average net worth of $14 million. For these voters, curbing budget deficits and government spending is more important than any other issue, and three times as important as unemployment. They support government spending on infrastructure, scientific research, and some tightly defined aid to education. They advocate for cuts in entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicaid, and oppose national health insurance, minimum wage increases, Earned Income Tax Credit increases, and unemployment benefits. They also oppose raising taxes on high income people or corporations, and oppose increased corporate regulation. Around most of these issues, the very wealthy are out of step with average Americans.

The authors propose several reasons why the wealthy might have such different agendas: obvious self-interest, different experiences from the average American that cause them to see the costs of government programs more clearly than the benefits, and superior knowledge (based on higher levels of education and philanthropic activity) about what actually serves the common good

The researchers also concluded that the wealthy appear to carry more weight in driving political agendas. Wealthy respondents characterized themselves as highly active in politics. Being politically active included:

  • Donating money to campaigns (they gave an average of $4,633 toward the last presidential campaign)
  • Bundling their donations together with other like-minded voters (20%)
  • Frequent communication with their U.S. Senator or Representative (50% initiated contact “recently”)
  • Focusing on a narrow set of key issues

So why do their issues seem to have outsized political traction? Besides money, wealthy voters take advantage of opportunities to access and influence policymakers. Are those who disagree with the singular budget deficit focus equally engaged in such communication? Do they even have such access? What do you make of the implications of this research?—Kathi Jaworski