Are rich voters more likely to favor candidates from the Republican Party? The richest states by per capita income are Maryland, Alaska, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Of these five, four are pretty reliably “blue” – i.e. leaning Democrat – with Alaska being the outlier. The five poorest states by per capita income are Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas, West Virginia, and Mississippi, all of which are “red” – typically Republican. So the rich actually tend to vote Democrat, right? Wrong. That inference is an example of what statisticians call the ecological fallacy: it is wrong to make inferences about individuals (in this example, voters), based on the characteristics of groups (in this example, states). In fact, richer individuals, other things equal, tend to vote Republican. Even though a higher proportion of voters in Maryland vote Democrat than we find in Mississippi, within each state, the higher the income of the individual, the more likely the voter chooses the Republican candidate.
Today, ArtsJournal links to a study from Southern Methodist University that aims to refute the following claim that was made during the debate over appropriations to the National Endowment from the Arts:
Federal subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting can no longer be justified. The activities and content funded by these agencies go beyond the core mission of the federal government, and they are generally enjoyed by people of higher-income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.
Now, whether you support increased funding for the NEA or not, I had always thought it commonly known that people of higher income levels tend to have higher participation in the arts. Indeed, econometric evidence for that claim is given by the NEA itself (see page 55 of this study, and look at participation by income quartile).
So how does the SMU team try to refute the claim? They look to the characteristics of the cities that host the arts organizations receiving NEA grants, relative to the cities of arts organizations that do not:
Based on a comparison of median household income, the community wealth characteristics of NEA grant recipient organizations and those of non-recipient organizations are remarkably similar. Specifically, there is no significant difference in median household income in communities with an NEA-funded organization and those without. This finding indicates that there is no bias in NEA grant-making either towards or against organizations on the basis of the median household income of the surrounding community.
But that does not refute the claim about arts funding being a transfer from poorer to richer citizens. If the opera company in a city of average income receives a grant that, on a per capita level, is much the same as the grant received by the opera company in a city with a higher average income, it might still be the case that in each city the opera attendees are primarily from the top income quartile.
In a second part of the study, the authors claim the following:
When looking across all arts organizations and their resident communities, there is no statistically significant relationship between total physical attendance and median household income, nor is there a significant relationship between free attendance and median household income. Since no relationship was found for median income and attendance, the extremes of the income spectrum (poverty and wealth) were analyzed for their relationships to attendance. As shown in Chart 2, there is a positive correlation between attendance at local arts organizations and the percentage of households below the poverty line; as the percentage of households below the poverty line increases, an increase in attendance at local arts organization is observed. We observe a similar positive relationship between attendance and the percentage of households with incomes greater than $200,000. Thus, the evidence indicates that arts organizations serve diverse audiences, with the poor and the wealthy benefitting from the arts more or less equally.
Again, the claim does not hold up. One cannot take figures for aggregate arts attendance, and community income distribution, and make any inference about who are the individuals that attend the arts.
I do not understand the motivation here. There is an international scholarly literature on the predictors of individual participation in the arts, and research on the topic sponsored by the NEA itself. The SMU study is on the wrong track.