Politics and income inequality in the United States have an effect on each other, said Christopher Faricy, an assistant professor of political science, in a public lecture to an audience of about 100 people.
Faricy addressed the politics of income inequality on Wednesday and how that relates to the Occupy Wall Street movement that is spreading across the nation.
According to the GINI index — the most common measurement of income inequality in the U.S. population — there has been a swift rise in inequality since the 1960s, Faricy said. He said this inequality can be seen even in the top 1 percent of the population. Income inequality has grown in other industrialized countries, but it is growing faster and at a higher level in the United States, he said.
Faricy said one sign of income inequality is the difference in who participates in politics.
“Given the democratic system, where the output, the public policies, are a product of who participates, we might start by looking at who writes, who votes, who participates in the American political system,” he said.
In the 2008 presidential election, Faricy said wealthier citizens were more likely to vote than working class citizens. College graduates are also more likely to participate than those with only a high school education or lower.
Faricy also discussed how different political parties' policies can affect income inequality. He said the largest effect they have is through macroeconomic trends.
“It’s the effect that parties have on changes to poverty rates and unemployment that seem to have the largest effects,” Faricy said.
He said there has been more economic growth under democratic presidents in the last 40 years. He said this is due to different priorities in the republican and democratic parties.
“Over the past 40 years, republican administrations have caused increases in income inequality, while Democratic administrations have caused reductions to income inequality,” Faricy said.
Programs such as welfare and food stamps have not had a great impact on reducing inequality, he said.
“We have a less generous welfare state than other European countries,” he said. “The only programs that are in a sense universal and generous compared to other European countries are social security and Medicare.”
Faricy said social security is designed to redistribute income from wealthier individuals to poorer ones. He said the poverty level in the United States would triple if social security and Medicare were taken away.
The other side of the spectrum — tax breaks — are not really tax breaks at all, Faricy said. The government takes in less revenue because of tax breaks, making them equivalent to spending money, he said.
“If the economic argument is for the government’s bottom line,” Faricy said, “it doesn't matter whether they spend the money directly on a government program, or they tell people, ‘you pay less for doing this activity.’”
Faricy said the government gave up more in revenue from tax breaks last year than they spent on Medicare and Medicaid combined. He also pointed out that not everyone receives tax breaks, and they are often unevenly given to wealthier, white Americans.
Faricy said both conservative and liberal Americans are aware that there is an income inequality gap and that it is growing.
“People who self-identified as republican or conservative seemed to understand there was a growing gap in income inequality and, when asked about specific programs, seemed to favor some sort of government intervention in reducing income inequality,” he said.
Political parties and policies do not only affect income inequality, Faricy said. Inequality can affect politics, as well. U.S. senators are more likely to respond to changes in the opinions of the wealthier voters, Faricy said. Income inequality has also caused more of a polarization in the political parties — the liberals are becoming more liberal and the conservatives more conservative, he said.
Income inequality even affects who is recruited for the military. Faricy said military recruiters target working class areas more than wealthier areas, but that soldiers from wealthier backgrounds are more likely to be promoted and less likely to be killed in combat.
Faricy ended his lecture by talking about the Occupy Wall Street movement and said it seems to be having an effect.
“There is evidence that there’s more media coverage and politicians seem to be addressing income inequality in their talks since the Occupy movement,” he said.
Junior Andrea Dietrach said she attended Faricy’s talk because she is interested in the Occupy movement.
“It kind of inspired me to go forth,” Dietrach said. “It definitely confirmed my beliefs.”
Faricy’s lecture was part of the Thomas S. Foley Institute’s Coffee and Politics series. Cornell W. Clayton, the director of the Foley Institute, said the turnout for Faricy’s talk was one of the largest he has seen this year.