Immigration Attitudes and White Americans’ Responsiveness to Rising Income Inequality

Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(2) 132 –142
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20972104
Despite decades of rising income inequality, decreased eco-
nomic mobility, and minimal wage growth among all but
the most affluent Americans (Bartels, 2016; Chetty et al.,
2017; Pikety et al., 2018), public support for redistribution
has, even among the less affluent, remained largely
unchanged (Kelly & Enns, 2010). This is theoretically puz-
zling (Meltzer & Richard, 1981), given that the mass public
has economic incentives to support greater redistribution
when inequality rises.
Income inequality is politically consequential (Stiglitz,
2012). By unequally distributing political resources
(Schlozman et al., 2012), economic inequality amplifies the
“voice” of the affluent and mutes the “voice” of the non-
affluent (Bartels, 2016; Gilens, 2012; Hacker & Pierson,
2010). In short, economic inequality undermines political
equality. Rising income inequality has also been linked to
decreased participation and civic engagement (Solt, 2010;
Uslaner & Brown, 2005), and increased legislative polariza-
tion and gridlock (Garand, 2010; McCarty et al., 2016; but
see O’Brian, 2019). These are important political outcomes.
As such, a plethora of research has sought to examine if and
when rising inequality prompts people to support policies
that redistribute wealth and reduce income disparities.
Findings, from both observational and experimental designs,
are mixed (Franko, 2016). Furthermore, in the aggregate,
there has been little observed shift in public support for
redistribution over the past several decades, with recent
work documenting a null, or even negative relationship
between inequality and support for economic redistribution
(Kelly & Enns, 2010; Luttig, 2013; Wright, 2018). This is
especially puzzling, given that majorities of Americans pro-
fess to be aware of and opposed to high levels of inequality
(McCall, 2013; Page & Jacobs, 2009).
I argue that this lack of responsiveness is not due to igno-
rance of, nor apathy toward, rising inequality. Rather, it is
due, in part, to attitudes toward immigrants, a negatively ste-
reotyped “out-group” that has become increasingly salient
since the 1970s and that is widely perceived to be a promi-
nent target of redistributive spending. This has been largely
overlooked as an explanation for the aforementioned puzzle,
despite the strong link between immigration and redistribu-
tion in the United States (Filindra, 2013; Garand et al., 2017;
Haselswerdt, 2020; Hawes & McCrea, 2018; Hero & Preuhs,
2007; Xu, 2017).1
To test the relationship between income inequality, immi-
gration attitudes, and support for economic redistribution, I
combine objective state-level data on inequality with indi-
vidual-level attitudes toward immigration and government
redistribution, using data from the 1992-2016 Cumulative
American National Election Study (Cumulative ANES). I
972104APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20972104American Politics ResearchMacdonald
1Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA
Corresponding Author:
David Macdonald, Florida State University, 600 W College Ave,
Tallahassee, FL 32306, USA.
Immigration Attitudes and White
Americans’ Responsiveness to
Rising Income Inequality
David Macdonald1
Despite decades of rising inequality, there has been little observed increase in American public support for redistribution.
This is puzzling because majorities of Americans profess to be aware of and opposed to high inequality. I argue that this lack
of responsiveness is not due to public ignorance of, nor apathy toward, inequality but rather, in part, to negative feelings
toward immigrants, a growing, politically salient, and negatively stereotyped “out-group” that is widely viewed as a target
of redistributive spending. To test this, I combine data on state-level income inequality with survey data from the 1992 to
2016 Cumulative ANES. I find that growing inequality can prompt support for redistribution but that this depends, in part,
on peoples’ immigration attitudes. Overall, these results suggest that immigration has important implications for economic
redistribution in an era of high, and rising inequality.
public opinion, income inequality, immigration attitudes, economic redistribution

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