Author Archives: Katherine Pearson

New Book Examines Ghana’s Political Trap

Post developed by Katherine Pearson

As a country grows and develops economically, most experts expect political behavior to develop as well, becoming more policy-oriented and programmatic and moving away from clientelism that characterizes less developed countries. However, this has not been the case in Ghana. In his new book, Electoral Politics and Africa’s Urban Transition, Noah Nathan traces the unexpected political patterns that are emerging in urban Ghana. Despite a growing middle class and increasing ethnic diversity, clientelism and ethnic voting persist in many urban neighborhoods.

Nathan focuses his research on Accra, Ghana, a diverse and growing metropolis of four million people. Not only is the population of the city growing, but it is becoming wealthier and better educated: data show that the middle class in Accra has tripled in size since Ghana democratized in 1992. The trend toward urbanization has also led to more diversity and contact between members of different ethnic groups in the city. Experts usually expect that higher incomes and levels of education will shift voter preferences away from politicians offering patronage and toward more policy-oriented candidates.

Political practices in Ghana have not transitioned as rapidly as the demographics have. Instead, Nathan shows, Ghanaian politics have become stuck in a trap. The trap is a cycle wherein voters expect goods and favors, which politicians deliver in the form of patronage. As a result,  the government performs poorly and elected officials are seen as less credible. Policy-oriented citizens are left without programmatic candidates, and become more likely to decide to opt out of voting entirely. With those voters increasingly out of play, politicians face strong incentives to continue engaging in clientelism, sometimes creating ethnic competition.

political trap

Nathan, Noah L. Electoral Politics and Africa’s Urban Transition: Class and Ethnicity in Ghana. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

The key to understanding the political trap of clientelism is the neighborhood-level variations within cities. Voters with similar levels of wealth and education do not all vote alike across the city; voting behaviors differ greatly by neighborhood. Voters in poorer neighborhoods still expect favors from politicians, who respond accordingly. Taking this into account, many middle-class voters, those who are most likely to support a programmatic transition, opt out of voting because they view politicians engaging in patronage as lacking credibility.

Certain features of developing cities give further context to explain politicians’ and voters’ incentives. Developing countries have lower capacity to provide services and infrastructure to their citizens as a whole. The rapid pace of growth creates a scarcity of resources to go around. Without the credibility to promise broad improvements, politicians rely instead on promises to select groups. Cities tend to be comprised of neighborhoods that differ widely in their wealth and diversity, often within the same electoral district. Understanding these realities help explain why clientelism prevails, even as the electorate becomes wealthier, better-educated, and more diverse.

Nathan concludes his analysis of the political patterns in Ghana by drawing parallels with political systems seen in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, as well as in Latin American cities. In these cases the shift to more programmatic politics occurred politicians could no longer distribute government resources selectively. The rise of civil service reforms and broad social welfare programs supported the shift to policy-oriented systems. These parallels to similar transitions over time and in other developing countries may point the way to more policy-oriented political systems in the future. 

Faida Zacharia Addresses the Challenges of Fresh Water Access in Tanzania

post developed by Katherine Pearson

Faida Zacharia studies access to energy and water resources for smallholder farmers in Dodoma Region in Tanzania. As a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan, she worked closely with Professor Kelly Askew to further her research on “Small-scale Groundwater Irrigated Agriculture and Livelihoods in Drylands Areas: The Case of Dodoma Region, Tanzania.”

Faida Zacharia

Faida Zacharia is an Assistant Lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Dodoma, Tanzania. She came to the University of Michigan as a member of the University of Michigan African Presidential Scholars (UMAPS) 2018-19 cohort.

Addressing groundwater irrigation in Dodoma

Water wars” are on the rise around the world as access to fresh water becomes ever more limited. Countries around the world are facing increased demand for water at a time when fresh water is becoming an ever more scarce resource. Food security and economic development depend on access to water, hence developing countries like Tanzania are seeking new means of increasing access to water for all the needs of its population.

In Dodoma, a semi-arid region in Tanzania, access to fresh water is a challenge. Climate change, industrial activities, and political conflicts all threaten the available water supply. The region has various reservoirs to collect surface water, among them Msalato reservoir, Mkonze dam, Hombolo dam, Bahi dam and Makutupora dam. Mtera dam, the largest dam in Tanzania, is also the primary source of electricity for the national grid. But despite all of these resources, Dodoma faces a shortage of water.

People in Dodoma rely on smallholder farming and livestock keeping for their livelihoods, but the recent rapid growth of this region has put additional pressure on water resources necessary for agriculture. When President John Magufuli was elected in 2015, he declared that Dodoma City would be the political capital of the country, and required all government ministries relocate from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma. People came to Dodoma from other regions of Tanzania, increasing the demand for water for household uses, for industry, and for agriculture beyond what the reservoirs could sustain. Tapping into groundwater resources may provide a solution.

Zacharia is developing new research that will explore how groundwater irrigation in Dodoma region contributes to agriculture and food security, and how it helps poverty reduction in the drylands of central Tanzania. Her research maps the groundwater in the region to establish how much there is and where it is located. This baseline data and knowledge will help to initiate, implement, and sustain groundwater irrigated agriculture in Tanzania.

Zacharia wants to know who benefits and who does not when groundwater irrigation is established in smallholder farming communities. Groundwater irrigated agriculture may prove to have great potential as a strategy that mitigates the impact of climate change on agricultural communities. These findings will inform the policy decision-making process and strategies related to small-scale groundwater irrigated agriculture to enhance the livelihoods of drylands communities.

Zacharia’s research supports sustainable development of infrastructure through an integrated approach to water management to balance the competing needs of agriculture, human consumption, industry, and environmental conservation. In the rush to secure more water, she cautions against a lack of planning that lead to the present water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa and other sites in China, India, and California where groundwater aquifers have been depleted.

Experience of a visiting scholar

Zacharia says that her time at the University of Michigan has been essential to advancing her research. Her fellowship allowed her to work closely with her mentor to receive support and feedback on her research. Zacharia presented research at two conferences during her visit: the Sustainability and Development Conference at the University of Michigan, and the African Studies Association annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. She said that the experience of attending the conferences and presenting work to her peers was one that she is eager to repeat. “It has changed my entire outlook and attitude towards life of academics,” Zacharia said.

Access to the university libraries was another important benefit of her time as a visiting scholar. Zacharia said that the wealth of research resources, and the efficiency of accessing them, was important to conducting her work. She worked closely with experts in geographic information systems (GIS) to map groundwater data. Other visiting scholars, especially those from Uganda, Ghana, and Nigeria, supported Zacharia’s research by reviewing her work and providing new insights. She expects that the relationships she has built during this program, with faculty and other scholars, will extend long into the future. “It’s not easy to find someone to give you the support like I get here,” said Zacharia. “That support makes me more comfortable to start my research.”

Zacharia returns home to Tanzania at the end of February, where she will apply to PhD programs to continue her work. We wish her all the best and look forward to future partnerships with her.

It’s Up to Us – Transparency and the Public Value of Science

post developed by Katherine Pearson

There are people all over the world who need the social sciences to reconcile the problems of their lives. At the Open Social Science Conference in Mannheim, Germany, Arthur Lupia told attendees that this is why social scientists must work to ensure that their work is transparent and credible. Lupia delivered his keynote address “It’s Up to Us – Transparency and the Public Value of Science” on Friday, January 25, 2019. A recording of the talk is available online.

Lupia studies how people make decisions when they don’t have much information. Quantitative researchers, he notes, make scientific claims backed up by proofs. A proof allows others to understand the thought process and produce the same result. It allows researchers to go beyond their own understanding, and bring others along.

It’s not always sufficient to show evidence, however. The scientist must also consider the person who receives the information: what they pay attention to, how they make sense of that information, what they understand. In order to create change, social science research must first reach its audience. The way scientists communicate knowledge makes a difference.

What makes social science research valuable to people who use it?

The mission of social science researchers, according to Lupia, is to offer people a better understanding of the relationship between things they can see and things they can do.

The amount of information available has increased greatly within our lifetimes. An abundance of information is available online. So why should anyone seek out rigorous scientific research? If information can be found for free, why should anyone fund social science?

To answer these questions, Lupia starts by explaining that decisions rely on evaluations of evidence. The essential criteria for evaluating evidence are:

  • Credibility – there is something about the claim that is trustworthy?
  • Legitimacy – is this claim developed in accordance with recognized principles?

Challenges facing scientists

While scientific inquiry fosters greater honesty in evaluations, the incentives that scientists face present challenges, as well. Scientists have a strong incentive to discover novel findings and publish them. The marketplace rewards claims that go viral. On the other hand, the incentives to explain how these discoveries emerge are very weak.

These incentives threaten the meaning and the value of the research. If scientists publish only astonishing results, but ignore more mundane studies that disagree, scientific credibility and legitimacy are eroded. If social scientists want to advance research that improves quality of life in the world, then credibility and legitimacy matter a lot.

Opportunities to improve transparency

Transparency in scientific research can be improved by creating better incentives. Because researchers already have strong incentives to publish, Lupia suggests that it makes sense to focus efforts on academic journals. He gave several examples of incentives that help journals increase transparency.

The Data Access and Research Transparency (DA-RT) Statement increases transparency in social science. The statement was signed by 28 academic journals that promised to “commit to greater data access and research transparency, and to implementing policies requiring authors to make as accessible as possible the empirical foundation and logic of inquiry of evidence-based research.”

The Transparency and Openness Promotion Guidelines are a model for increasing transparency in publishing. Created by the Center for Open Science, over 8,000 journals have committed to these guidelines. CoS badges

The Center for Open Science has created badges to show when a study has preregistered, uses open data, or uses open materials. Research has shown that implementing these badges dramatically increases the rate of data sharing.

The Election Research Preacceptance Competition, led by Lupia and Brendan Nyhan, asked researchers to design a paper using data from the 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES) and submit the design to a participating journal before the data were available for analysis. In return, selected entries were offered an award of $2,000 and placement on a panel at a major political science conference. This challenged researchers to share ideas regardless of whether the analysis yielded the expected results. Lupia noted that they received fewer submissions than they expected. He suspects that it’s difficult for researchers, especially younger ones, to take the risk to publicly share an idea without knowing what the outcome will be.

The value of social science is up to us

When was the golden age of social science? Lupia says it is dawning right now. Scientists must ensure their work has value to those who can use it to make change, and that’s why they need to commit to greater transparency. Increasing transparency requires creating incentives and improving infrastructure for openness. Most people who consume scientific research will never read the evidence that went into the findings. Instead they take the results on faith. Lupia cautions that if researchers don’t uphold standards of transparency, they lose their value as credible sources of knowledge. 

Portrait of a birther: White conservatives with political knowledge more likely to believe Obama conspiracy

Post developed by Morgan Sherburne for Michigan News.

White conservatives who not only have racial animus but are also knowledgeable about politics were the most likely group to believe that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, according to a University of Michigan Institute for Social Research study.

Michael Traugott and Ashley Jardina

Michael Traugott and Ashley Jardina

The study, published in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Politics, teased out motivations of white voters for believing the so-called birther rumor. It found that white conservatives who ranked as having a high amount of knowledge were most likely to support the idea that Obama was not born in the U.S.

“This is a piece of social science research about biased perceptions in the political world and what their consequences might be,” said the study’s co-author Michael Traugott, a researcher at the Center for Political Studies at ISR. “It’s relevant because the whole concept of fake news is about devaluing information that doesn’t conform to either what you believe or what you want other people to believe, therefore suggesting a basis upon which it can be discounted or thrown away.”

Traugott and co-author Ashley Jardina, a former U-M doctoral student and now an assistant professor of political science at Duke University, say politically knowledgeable conservatives may be more likely to believe the rumor because they may follow what’s called a “motivated reasoning model.”

“One of the most interesting things about the motivated reasoning model is that the more resources the person has—which could be political information—the better they are able to argue against new information that doesn’t fit their worldview,” said Traugott.

Traugott and Jardina explored a portrait of a birther among white Americans using data from the 2012 American National Election Study. The ANES, conducted in person among a nationally representative sample of respondents, asked several questions assessing belief in contemporary conspiracy theories.

As recently as 2017, nearly a third of U.S. adults believed it was possible Obama was born outside the U.S., according to the researchers.

The survey also assessed participants’ knowledge by asking them to identify the office held by several political figures. A respondent’s score on the scale was the proportion of correctly answered questions.

The researchers found that 62 percent of very strong Republicans reported that Obama was born in the U.S. compared to 89 percent of very strong Democrats. Thirty-eight percent of very strong Republicans reported that Obama was probably born in another country, while 11 percent of very strong Democrats reported the same.

To estimate the impact of racial attitudes on the birther rumor, the researchers compared two conspiracy theories detailed in the 2012 ANES survey: the Obama birther rumor and the existence of the Affordable Care Act “death panels,” or, the idea that the ACA authorized government panels to make end-of-life decisions for people on Medicare.

Additionally, the researchers found:

  • Strong Republicans with higher levels of racial animus are more inclined to believe the birther rumor, but not the death panel rumor.
  • Republicans both low on resentment and low on knowledge are also more inclined to believe the birther rumor.
  • Democrats with higher levels of racial resentment are not significantly inclined to adopt either rumor.
  • Democrats low on knowledge and high on resentment are more likely to adopt birther beliefs.
  • High-knowledge Democrats with high levels of racial resentment are less likely to believe the rumor.

“Until recently, the relationship of party identification to things like voting behavior had weakened, but it has strengthened again,” Traugott said. “We expected partisanship would play a role in attitudes about Barack Obama, and because he was an African American, racial attitudes would play a role as well. These things are now increasingly important because of this kind of tribalism that’s infecting contemporary politics.”

 

More information:

Most Popular CPS Blog Posts in 2018

Post developed by Katherine Pearson

Since its establishment in 2013, a total of 146 posts have appeared on the Center for Political Studies (CPS) Blog. As we approach the new year, we look back at 2018’s most-viewed recent posts. Listed below are the recent posts that you found most interesting on the blog this year.


Farris and Eck

Crime in Sweden: What the Data Tell Us 

By Christopher Fariss and Kristine Eck (2017)

Debate persists inside and outside of Sweden regarding the relationship between immigrants and crime in Sweden. But what can the data actually tell us? Shouldn’t it be able to identify the pattern between the number of crimes committed in Sweden and the proportion of those crimes committed by immigrants? The answer is complicated by the manner in which the information about crime is collected and catalogued. This is not just an issue for Sweden but any country interested in providing security to its citizens. Ultimately though, there is no information that supports the claim that Sweden is experiencing an “epidemic.”

Read the full post here.


Negativity in Debate Speeches, By Political Party, 1976-2016Exploring the Tone of the 2016 Campaign

By undergraduate students Megan Bayagich, Laura Cohen, Lauren Farfel, Andrew Krowitz, Emily Kuchman, Sarah Lindenberg, Natalie Sochacki, and Hannah Suh, and their professor Stuart Soroka, all from the University of Michigan. (2017)

The 2016 election campaign seems to many to have been one of the most negative campaigns in recent history. The authors explore negativity in the campaign – focused on debate transcripts and Facebook-distributed news content – and share their observations.

Read the full post here.


Parental LeaveAttitudes Toward Gender Roles Shape Support for Family Leave Policies

By Solmaz Spence (2017)

In almost half of two-parent households in the United States, both parents work full-time. Yet when a baby is born, it is still new moms who take the most time off work. On average, new mothers take 11 weeks off work while new dads take just one week, according to a 2016 survey carried out by the Pew Research Center. In part, that is because many new fathers in the U.S. don’t have access to paid paternity leave. Paid maternity leave is rare, too: in fact, the U.S. is the only developed nation that does not provide a national paid family leave program to new parents.

Read the full post here.


The Spread of Mass SurveillanceThe Spread of Mass Surveillance, 1995 to Present 

By Nadiya Kostyuk and Muzammil M. Hussain (2017)

By closely investigating all known cases of state-backed cross-sector surveillance collaborations, the authors’ findings demonstrate that the deployment of mass surveillance systems by states has been globally increasing throughout the last twenty years. More importantly, from 2006-2010 to present, states have uniformly doubled their surveillance investments compared with the previous decade.

Read the full post here.


gerrymanderingRedrawing the Map: How Jowei Chen is Measuring Partisan Gerrymandering 

By Solmaz Spence (2018)

“Gerrymandering”— when legislative maps are drawn to the advantage of one party over the other during redistricting—received its name in 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed off on a misshapen district that was said to resemble a salamander, which a newspaper dubbed a “gerrymander.”

But although the idea of gerrymandering has been around for a while, proving that a state’s legislature has deliberately skewed district lines to benefit one political party remains challenging.

Read the full post here.


American ElectorateInside the American Electorate: The 2016 ANES Time Series Study 

By Catherine Allen-West, Megan Bayagich, and Ted Brader (2017)

Since 1948, the ANES- a collaborative project between the University of Michigan and Stanford University- has conducted benchmark election surveys on voting, public opinion, and political participation. To learn more about the study, we asked Ted Brader (University of Michigan professor of political science and one of the project’s principal investigators) a few questions about the anticipated release.

Read the full post here.


Party IDUnderstanding the Changing American Electorate 

By Catherine Allen-West (2018)

The American National Election Studies (ANES) has surveyed American citizens before and after every presidential election since 1948.  The survey provides the public with a rigorous, non-partisan scientific basis for studying change over time in American politics.

The interactive graphs in this post illustrate the changing American electorate and some of the factors that may motivate voters’ choices at the ballot box.

Read the full post here.


TwitterUsing Twitter to Observe Election Incidents in the United States 

By Catherine Allen-West (2017)

Election forensics is the field devoted to using statistical methods to determine whether the results of an election accurately reflect the intentions of the electors. Problems in elections that are not due to fraud may stem from legal or administrative decisions. Some examples of concerns that may distort turnout or vote choice data are long wait times, crowded polling place conditions, bad ballot design and location of polling stations relative to population.

Read the full post here.


InequalityInequality is Always in the Room: Language and Power in Deliberative Democracy 

By Catherine Allen-West (2017)

In a paper presented at the 2017 APSA meeting, Arthur Lupia, University of Michigan, and Anne Norton, University of Pennsylvania, explore the effectiveness of deliberative democracy by examining the  foundational communicative acts that take place during deliberation.

Read the full post here.


ElliottMaking Education Work for the Poor: The Potential of Children’s Savings Accounts 

By Katherine Pearson (2018)

Dr. William Elliott contends that we need a revolution in the way we finance college education. His new book Making Education Work for the Poor, written with Melinda Lewis, takes a hard look at the inequalities in access to education, and how these inequalities are threatening the American dream. Elliott and Lewis present data and analyses outlining problems plaguing the system of student loans, while also proposing children’s savings accounts as a robust solution to rising college costs, skyrocketing debt burdens, and growing wealth inequality. In a presentation at the University of Michigan on October 3, 2018, Elliott presented new research supporting the case for children’s savings accounts and rewards card programs.

Read the full post here.

What happened in the 2018 Midterm Elections?

Post written by Katherine Pearson

Elections experts Ken Goldstein, Walter Mebane, and Vincent Hutchings analyzed the results and key lessons of the 2018 Midterm Elections at a round table discussion hosted by the Center for Political Studies on November 13, 2018. A recording of the event is available below.

Ken Goldstein, Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco

Ken Goldstein began his presentation by noting that there are still races that do not have a clear winner a week after the election, including the Senate and Governor’s races in Florida and the Governor’s race in Georgia.

Leading up to the Midterm Elections, some observers anticipated big wins for the Democratic Party. Goldstein observed that while there was a general lack of exuberance on the part of Democrats on election night, further reflection reveals that there were meaningful shifts in this election. Although the “blue wave” of Democratic wins didn’t materialize, the number of congressional seats changing away from the President’s party was of similar magnitude to past midterm elections.

Goldstein drew attention to the behavior of independent voters. Exit poll data show that independents favored Republican candidates for the House of Representatives in the past two midterm elections, as well as the 2016 General Election. In contrast, independent voters were more likely to vote for Democratic House candidates in 2018 by a margin of 12 percentage points.

US party ID by Vote for House in 2018

Were the polls leading up to the election predictive of the actual outcome? Goldstein said they were fairly accurate, but reminded the audience that many congressional seats were not in play in this election. There are few high-quality state-level polls, which makes forecasting less accurate. More probability-based surveys that weight responses for education and race of the respondent would improve the accuracy of predictions.

Looking at the big picture trends, Goldstein observed that there was a substantial increase in the number of women running for office and winning, as well as large increases in non-white voters. He shared a map showing what the results of the presidential election would look if votes followed the same partisan break-down as the 2018 midterms. However, Goldstein cautioned that presidential campaigns are very different from congressional campaigns, and that a presidential candidate running a nation-wide campaign will face challenges in changing districts, especially in the Midwest.

Electoral College Map

Walter Mebane, Professor of Political Science and Statistics at the University of Michigan

Next, Walter Mebane presented analyses he has conducted using election forensics. Mebane coined the term “election forensics” to describe a set of statistical methods he developed to determine whether the results of an election accurately reflect the intentions of the electors.

Using Twitter data from the 2016 General Election Mebane analyzed reports of election incidents, including wait times and problems with voting. During the 2016 General Election people used Twitter to report different kinds of election incidents depending on their partisan affiliation. These incidents tended to be reported in replies to people with similar partisan affiliations.

Table showing types of elections incidents

Mebane discovered that there are partisan differences in the types of incidents that Twitter users shared during the 2016 General Election. For example, Republicans were less likely to report a long line to vote, but more likely to report registration problems. A significant conclusion from this finding is that such observational biases and communication silos suggest partisans tended to form different impressions of how the 2016 election went, supported by the divergent reported experiences. These patterns will probably continue in 2018, according to Mebane.

Vincent Hutchings, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan

Vincent Hutchings analyzed the shifting demographics of the American electorate. Hutchings presented data showing that Democratic voters have become more racially diverse in the past 20 years, while Republican voters have remained predominately white. Similarly, the Congress elected in 2018 is the most diverse in the history of the United States, but the increase in diversity has been primarily among Democrats elected to Congress.

The most diverse Congress in US history

Reviewing voting data by race, gender, age, marital status, and education, Hutchings notes that each demographic group voted for Democrats at a higher rate than they did in the 2014 Midterm Elections. However, the magnitude of change was different for each group.

Some elections experts wondered whether women would vote for Democrats at higher rates in 2018 in response to the #MeToo movement, the contentious confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh, and controversial remarks about women made by President Trump. Hutchings showed that, among white voters, men and women both shifted toward Democratic candidates, but the gender gap didn’t change. Married men and married women both moved toward the Democratic Party House candidates at roughly equal rates in 2018 compared to 2014. No matter how Hutchings examined gender, he found no evidence that white women behaved differently than comparable men, relative to their preferences four years ago.

Votes by gender and marital status

Similarly, Hutchings observed meaningful trends related to generation and education. Voters under 30 years old voted for Democrats at a higher rate than voters under 30 in 2014. Democrats also increased gains among college-educated white voters compared to the 2014 Midterm Elections. Hutchings concluded that, while media may focus on gender differences between Democratic and Republican voters, more important differences are emerging along generational and educational lines, and these are trends to watch

Democratic House support by age of voterDemocratic House support by education of voter

Round Table Analyzes Salient Themes in the Upcoming 2018 Midterm Elections

On Thursday, November 1, 2018 the Center for Political Studies hosted a round table discussion on the 2018 midterm elections. A panel of three experts presented data and analysis of the most important trends in political attitudes and behavior that they see emerging in the weeks leading up to the elections. A recording of this event is available here.

Ashley Jardina, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University, spoke about the trends in race, gender, and racial attitudes that are emerging in her research. She shared images from political ads and news articles that illustrate the heightened emphasis on race in this election cycle, including displays of the Confederate flag, politicized messages about the caravan of migrants from Central America, and President’s Trump’s recent announcement of plans to end birthright citizenship.

Jardina shared polling data from Gallup and Pew that demonstrate the divide between Democrats and Republicans with regard to their attitudes about immigration. These data show that while 75% of registered Republicans think that illegal immigration is a big problem, only 19% of registered Democrats felt the same way. Data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) also shows partisan differences in support for birthright citizenship, as illustrated in the graphic below.

Graphic showing support for Eliminating birthright citizenship in the United States

Identity politics have become an increasingly notable theme in the current election cycle, one which Jardina’s forthcoming book, White Identity Politics, examines. She notes that President Trump appeals to a base of white voters who feel attached to their racial group and possess a sense of racial identity or racial consciousness. She finds that the 2018 midterms are significantly about issues of race and identity, and many Republican candidates are appealing to voters’ attitudes about race and immigration, following President Trump’s lead.

Next, Brendan Nyhan, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy and Faculty Associate at the Center for Political Studies, discussed the challenges of forecasting the outcome of the elections, and the role of misinformation in campaigns.

Nyhan began his talk by noting that many Americans have difficulty interpreting polls, and may be surprised by the actual outcomes. Rather than dwelling on predictions, he turned instead to three broader questions:

  1. What is the state of U.S. democracy in 2018?
  2. To what extent is Trump changing the Republican Party?
  3. What role do conspiracy theories and misinformation now play in our democracy?

Experts see a downturn in quality of U.S. democracy, according to data presented by Nyhan (see graph below). He notes that this trend is consistent with what many observe in the news, and reflects concerns about interference in investigations and voting rights, and limitations on the power of government. This election is not a referendum on these issues, says Nyhan, but this is an important time to be aware of the potential erosion of democracy.

Graphic showing decline in expert ratings of democracy in the United States.

Nyhan notes that President Trump has increasingly fallen in line with the Republican party when it comes to accomplishing long-standing aspects of the party agenda, including passing tax cuts and appointing conservative judges. However, he also argues that President Trump appears to be pivoting the Republican party toward ethnonationalism in a way that may outlast his presidency. Policies like separating the children of asylum seekers from their parents are moving ideas that were once at the fringe to the center of the Republican party.

Whereas the Republican party has focused strongly on identity issues leading up to the midterm elections, the Democratic party has campaigned largely on the issue of health care. Nyhan notes that there has been a notable shift in the tone of racial language in the campaigns, with rhetoric about the campaign of migrants stoking racial fears. He concludes that voters should be shocked by the explicit fear mongering presented by campaigns in this election cycle.

Stuart Soroka, Professor of Communication Studies and Professor of Political Science and Faculty Associate at the Center for Political Studies, presented a content analysis from open-ended survey responses and from news coverage for the last two months.

He showed results of surveys conducted in collaboration with SurveyMonkey, the Washington Post, and researchers affiliated with the S3MC project. These nationally-representative surveys asked, “If the election for the US House of Representatives were held today, would you vote?” and then asked “Why?” The open-ended responses to “Why?” were analyzed to reveal differences behind the reasons that Democrats and Republicans are making their choices on election day. Distinguishing words, words that are most uniquely linked to Democrats or Republicans, are shown in the graphic below. Soroka notes that Democrats frequently mention Republicans in their response, and Republicans frequently mention Democrats, suggesting that voters from each party are strongly motivated to vote against the opposing party.

Survey results showing the words that distinguish respondents of each political party.

Soroka also presented an analysis of newspaper content, including all articles mentioning “election” or “campaign” from August through the end of October during midterm election years 2006-2018, in 17 major newspapers archived in Lexis-Nexis. This amounts to approximately 20,000 articles and between 35-70,000 individual sentences (that do not mention polls), coded for sentiment using the Lexicoder Sentiment Dictionary. In the 2018 data, he finds a strong relationship between the predicted advantage for Democrats and negative news sentiment. Soroka warns that he is not arguing that news is affecting attitudes, but that news moves along with political attitudes. Based on his analysis of these data from newspapers, Soroka concludes that the nature of media coverage is going through dramatic changes because of the way the press report on President Trump.

 

Making Education Work for the Poor: The Potential of Children’s Savings Accounts

Post written by Katherine Pearson

Dr. William Elliott contends that we need a revolution in the way we finance college education. His new book Making Education Work for the Poor, written with Melinda Lewis, takes a hard look at the inequalities in access to education, and how these inequalities are threatening the American dream. Elliott and Lewis present data and analyses outlining problems plaguing the system of student loans, while also proposing children’s savings accounts as a robust solution to rising college costs, skyrocketing debt burdens, and growing wealth inequality. In a presentation at the University of Michigan on October 3, 2018, Elliott presented new research supporting the case for children’s savings accounts and rewards card programs.

This video of Elliott’s talk was recorded by Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan.

There is a prevailing belief that education provides a path to success and greater income. However, Elliott points out that income provides a means to survive, whereas assets determine who will thrive. Our current educational financing system, which relies mainly on student loans, may help some students reach higher income levels, but it does not equalize the wealth gap. In fact, the high debt burden of student loans actually widens that gap.

Defining the Problem

College access is more than a matter of having enough money to pay for a college education. Elliott asks a different question: are you better off going to college than not going? And does college pay off equally whether or not you graduate with debt.

Student loans have become the dominant means to finance a college education. In 2000, student loans made up 38% of net tuition, fees, room, and board; by 2013 they made up 50% (Greenstone, Looney, Patashnik, and Yu, 2013). Programs such as income-based repayment seem popular because they decrease loan defaults, but they actually increase debt burden by extending the length of time it takes to pay off the loan.

Data shows that assets matter

Elliott uses data to show that students who have to pay for college with student loans do not achieve the same outcomes as students who do not have to take out loans. According to the Government Accounting Office, assuming a standard ten-year payback at 7% annual interest, average cumulative undergraduate educational debt exceeded $18,000 in 2000. This means that students who take out loans pay $6,000 more in interest than their peers who did not take loans. Elliott challenges us: does this sound like equal opportunity? Furthermore, data shows that low-income students and African Americans earn less from their college degrees as adults. If education is to equalize these disparities, the return on the investment in a college a degree must be higher for all children, particularly those with low incomes and students of color.

Wealth inequality contributes to having higher amounts of student debt. Racial disparities in income and wealth account for over 35% of the black-white student loan debt in young adulthood. (Huelsman, 2015) This debt contributes to education’s failure to deliver on the opportunity to achieve the American dream. Research finds that acquiring the relatively small amount of $10,000 in student loans is associated with an 18% decrease in the rate of achieving median net worth.

In short, growing up in a family with less wealth contributes to having more student debt, and having more student debt contributes to having less wealth as a young adult creating a cycle of inequality from one generation to the next.

Small Dollar CSAs Build Wealth

Elliott shows that children’s savings accounts (CSA) have a positive effect on a family’s ability to save for college. However, small dollar CSAs haven’t been able to fully overcome the fact that low-income and minority families often have little money after they pay for basic needs.

The graphic above shows contribution value and total CSA value for the Harold Alfond College Challenge (HACC).

The graphic above shows contribution value and total CSA value for the Harold Alfond College Challenge (HACC).

One answer to this dilemma may be rewards cards. Elliott presented data from programs set up by grocery stores that offer a percentage of their sales to CSA programs, on the expectation of increasing sales volume. This intervention transforms spending into saving. Not only are families able to save without tapping into already very limited financial resources, it shapes the children’s expectations that they will be able to go to college, and start planning for their future with a greater sense of control.

Looking forward, Elliott and fellow researchers are launching three randomized control trials of rewards card programs in Wabash County, Indiana; St. Louis, Missouri; and Lansing, Michigan. These trials will examine whether or not families will actively save for college using a rewards card, how much they are able to save, and whether or not families will make a contribution to the CSA in addition to saving with the rewards card. Already, early results show an increase in savings. The rewards cards tripled the number of households actively saving via rewards cards, and consequently increased the averaged dollars saved after only 3 months. Behavioral and financial literacy attempts have not been effective way to increase college savings among the poor because low-income people have little money to contribute regardless of their level of financial literacy. Rewards programs, on the other hand, appear to be a promising way to help low-income families participate in saving in CSAs.

Promise Indiana 3 month results

An Asset Building Agenda for the 21st Century

Elliott likens CSAs to the plumbing, the most basic infrastructure, of a new system of education financing for the 21st century. Rewards cards add a new layer to that system that allows poor families to access the system of saving for college.

Creating a system where more people can build assets is a direct way to start closing the wealth gap in America. However, students with fewer assets end up paying much more for education when they can access it. Elliott argues that the idea of a wealth transfer is completely consistent with American history and with our collective narrative of individual effort. It is about equipping all children with tools that complement their own contributions. There are historical precedents for this type of wealth transfer, too: the Homestead Act and the GI Bill. Both required considerable individual effort, yet offered real promise to change the distributional consequences of existing systems—property ownership, on the one hand, and higher education, on the other—in ways that helped to transform power and pathways to prosperity, for generations. In the 21th Century there has yet to be such a wealth transfer, although the need has never been more urgent.