Who Speaks for the Poor? Electoral Geography and the Political Representation of Low-Income Citizens


Karen L. Jusko, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Stanford University



Who speaks for the poor? In the United States, this important question is difficult to answer: Usually, in contemporary democracies, a social democratic or workers’ party, and the candidates who contest elections on its label, ensure that the interests of the poor and working class citizens are at least articulated in the policymaking process. However, as noted by Sombart (1976 [1906]) and others over the course of the twentieth century (recently, e.g., Archer 2007), the absence of a social democratic or workers’ party clearly sets the US apart from all other developed democracies. Further, even members of the left- leaning Democrats regularly ignore the preferences of low-income citizens (Gilens 2012, Bartels 2008). Current explanations of cross-national differences in the the political and partisan representation of low-income citizens emphasize the historical organization of so- ciety (Iversen & Soskice 2009), the role of unions and class-based organizations in Europe (Huber & Stephens 2001, Golden & Pontusson 1992), and the disenfranchising effects of increasing income inequality in the United States (Anderson & Beramendi 2012, Lupu & Pontusson 2011).

This paper, and a larger book project, will offer a very different account of the origins of cross-national differences in social policy, and political inequality in the US: Current Amer- ican electoral geography – specifically, the geographic distribution of low-income citizens across congressional districts – undermines legislators’ incentives to be responsive to the poor, and significantly limits the electoral viability of low-income peoples’ parties. In other countries, a more equitable mapping of low-income citizens’ votes-to-seats ensures that legislators have incentives to be responsive to all citizens, and social policy tends to be more generous as a consequence.  This paper will focus on parties’ decisions to enter electoral contests, and will demonstrate how the electoral geographies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries structured the strategic entry incentives of low-income peoples’ parties. Specifically, when new electoral geographies favor a low-income constituency,  we see parties entering to represent low-income voters’ interests. Then, whether the new party takes on a left or right ideological flavor, usually a social democratic or agrarian ideology, depends on whether poverty is predominantly concentrated in urban industrial, or rural agricultural regions: The appropriate ideological form of poverty responsiveness varies with the location of the poverty. Once established, the ideological position these low-income peoples’ parties take has lasting and cumulative effects on social policy in each country, with those systems with social democratic parties implementing more broadly accessible and effective social insurance programs.



Karen Jusko is an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, and a faculty affiliate of Stanford's Europe Center and the Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality.

Jusko's research is motivated by questions about the origins of contemporary democratic politics in the U.S., and in Europe. Drawing on survey research and historical census data, Jusko's current book project ties the different components of democratic representation -- participation, party politics, and the policy-making process -- to legislators' and political parties' electoral incentives. Specifically, Jusko draws attention to the ways in which the geographic distributions of different income groups and legislative seats across electoral districts shape legislators' and parties' incentives to craft responsive policy. This research builds on Jusko's dissertation, which was awarded the Harold D. Laswell Prize for the best dissertation in the field of public policy by the Policy Studies Organization and the APSA Public Policy Organized Section.

Jusko received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. She has been a National Hoover fellow, and a fellow at the Center for the Study Democratic Politics, at Princeton University. Jusko's research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the European Science Foundation, and the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences at Stanford.