Author Archives: Katherine Pearson

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.

The Center for Political Studies will host another round table following the midterm elections to discuss the results. That event will be held on Tuesday, November 13, 2018 at 4 p.m., and will be livestreamed. More information about the event is available at https://events.umich.edu/event/56438.

Election 2018: What Happened. Event takes place Nov. 13, 2018.

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.