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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Poverty and the Psychology of Political (In)Action

  • Author(s): Denny, Elaine Kathryn
  • Advisor(s): Hafner-Burton, Emilie
  • et al.

Poor people consistently vote at lower rates than wealthier cohorts in the United States, and globally social movements often are comprised more of middle and upper-class citizens rather than the poor – even when the movement’s objectives are specifically socio-economic. While the poor face more structural barriers to participation, structural barriers alone have been insufficient to explain this participation gap. Psychology, cognitive science, and behavioral economics have shown that stress – including financial stress – has systematic effects on decision-making. In my dissertation, I show that these behavioral insights have measurable consequences for political participation, especially when resources are scarce. Using a combination of lab experiments and nationally representative surveys, I find that financial stress taxes cognitive bandwidth, driving a gap between political interest and political action. I use geospatial and field experiment data to demonstrate how mobilization efforts overcome this Good Intention Gap, significantly elevating rates of political action among the poor.

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