Education and Inequality: The Participation Mechanism


Today’s edition of Timothy Noah’s ongoing series on income inequality in America looks at the Katz/Goldin thesis that the slowdown in educational attainment is playing a huge role. I highly recommend both Noah’s piece and their book The Race between Education and Technology.

In a more speculative vein, something I think is probably worthy of more attention in this regard not as a cause of growing inequality but as a potential solution is the way that education impacts political participation. The run-up in inequality is obviously related to politicians’ tendency to care a lot about what rich people want and not very much about what people at the bottom think. Larry Bartels’ finding, reproduced to the right, casts this in a very dramatic light showing that Senators of both parties don’t care about the bottom-third of the income distribution and Republicans are positively obsessed with the rich.

Some of this is just about money. But income is highly correlated with education. Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, Aaron Smith, and Henry Brady did an interesting report last year about participation with a focus on internet issues. This table provides a handy summary of the basic shape of things:


As you can see, there’s a big education gap here. And it’s easy to see why politicians are likely to be more responsive to the desires of people who participate more in politics. Some of the greater political participation of well-educated people is probably semi-incidental to actual education and reflects the fact that college graduates have more money and cushier jobs. But some of it is likely a real effect of education. People with more schooling are going to be more able to read about public affairs and communicate about it with others. Such people will have a greater sense (and reality) of efficacy, and will be more listened to encouraging further participation.