Education, class, and turnout: is Spain so special?

Introduction

A few months ago, political scientist Aina Gallego published this excellent post explaining why, according to her analysis, and contrary to general wisdom and past empirical research, in Spain the better off do not present higher turnout rates than those with lower income levels. She has studied unequal turnout in industrial democracies thoroughly, with special focus on the interaction between individual and contextual factors.

According to the traditional argument, political participation is costly—it requires the mobilization of individual resources such as time, money, and information. Tipically richer people are better educated, thus incurring in relatively lower costs of information. Therefore, those with higher levels of education will be more prone to vote than less educated citizens. Since in most democracies the better educated are also richer, usually it will be the case that richer people will present higher rates of voting than poorer people. In particular, the level of eduation has largely been found a strong predictor of both political participation and social status, to the extent that “[e]ducational measures can be better compared across countries than other factors, such as income” (Gallego 2010). Therefore, measuring the effect of education on turnout, it is argued, is a way to measure unequal turnout—i.e., the effect of social stuatus on political participation.

I wouldn’t discuss Gallego’s general findings, neither in ther paper nor in the blog post: among Spanish citizens, the level of education does not seem to be a good predictor of electoral turnout. But, is this finding sufficient to state that in Spain there’s not turnout inequality—that richer people vote more than poorer people?

I argue that unlike other industrial democracies, in Spain:

  • the level of education is not a straightforward way to compare between income levels;
  • turnout inequality is empirically strong when we use a measure of social class instead the level of education.

To carry out the analysis I shall use official survey data from the Spanish Center of Sociological Research (CIS 2923), from December 2011.

Education and electoral turnout

We first focus on the relationship between level of education and turnout, which was the main issue of the author.

Table 1 presents this relationship in percentages: the data do not show a clear, positive relationship between education and turnout. Should there be a strong relationship, less educated people would present a much lower percentage of voting than the one presented in the table. Indeed, the percentage of turnout among least educated people is higher than the one among those who have primary or vocational education. Is this, though, sufficient to conclude that in Spain the relationship between education (and therefore income) and  turnout is inexistent or extremely weak? I argue it is not.

Relationship between the level of education and voting.

Table 1. Relationship between the level of education and voting.

The first reason is demographic. In Spain, the level of education attainment among citizens older than 55 is below the OECD average. Figure 1 shows the evolution of the percentage of people with less than primary education and with primary education among the working population.

Distribution of the lower levels of education among Spanish working population, 1977-2000 (EAP Survey)

We see that while the percentage of pople with only primary education has decreased dramatically in the last years, the percentage of non-educated workers has decreased at a much slower pace. Spanish non-educated workers are a whole generational group.

Table 2 below shows the distribution of each level of education along age groups. If we focus on the first row of the table, 56.4 percent of non-educated prople are between 56 and 76 years old, while there is no single person younger than 37 without at least a primary education certificate. Globally, non-educated people represent 6.5 percent of the sample, only a bit less than those with superior education.

Relationship between level of education and age in Spain

Table 2. Relationship between level of education and age in Spain

In order to test the relationship between education and turnout, I fit a simple logistic regression model with binary response (vote=1, non-vote=0).  Results are presented in Figure 2 below, which plots the predicted probability of voting among the different levels of education.

Predicted effect of level of education on electoral turnout (logistic regression)

Figure 2. Predicted effect of level of education on electoral turnout (logistic regression)

It shows, indeed, that it is precisely the non-educated cateogory the one that breaks an otherwise classic pattern: those with primary education tend to vote less than those better educated.

Why do I believe that Spanish non-educated citizens tend to vote more than expected? I would point to at least two main reasons. First, in terms of age, Table 2 above tells us that more than half of non-educated citizens belong to the age groups that present higher levels of overall turnout (middle-aged and early retirement). Should they only be much older (>80) or poorer (e.g., marginal social groups) their likelihood of voting would be much lower. Additional to this age effect, this is also the generation of the Spanish democratic transition, which might also present a specific level of mobilization. This, though, I cannot measure. The second reason is that non-educated people in Spain are not necessarily the poorer people.

Table 3 below shows the relationship between level of education and social class, in column percentages.  Obviously there is a general relationship between level of education and social class. None of the non-educated are upper/upper-middle class. Most people with college education belong to upper/middle classses, and just a few of those with lower educational attainment belong to the upper classes. This is indisputable. 

Yet, what’s the matter with non-educated citizens? Should there be a strong relationship between class and education, we would expect that most people in this group would be non-qualified workers. The data, though, show that 40 percent of non-educated people belong to the old middle class, I guess typically shopkeepers and self-employed owners of small workshops, bars, etc. 40 percent is not a small amount: notice that among those with primary education only 20 percent are middle class. An additional 40 percent of non-educated people are skilled workers. They are typically insiders 

Therefore, the statement that in Spain the level of education is a good predictor of social class should be taken with care. Tables 3 and 4 present this relationship in column and row percentages, and show that while things are much clear among college and higher educated people, the other categories present a fuzzier profile.

Relationship between social class and level of education.

Table 3. Relationship between social class and level of education (column %)

Relationship between class and level of education (row %)

Table 4. Relationship between class and level of education (row %)

Social class and electoral turnout

What happens when we explore turnout inequality in Spain through social class instead of the level of education? The objective social class variable in CIS is the result of combining  several variables. Table 5 below shows the relationship between social class and electoral turnout.

Table 5. Relationship between social class and electoral turnout.

Table 5. Relationship between social class and electoral turnout.

If richer people don’t tend to turnout more than poorer citizens, we would observe similar turnout percentages along classes. That is not the case: unskilled workers fail to vote at a higher level than upper-middle class citizens. We have modeled this relationship, again, through a logistic regression model with binary response (vote=1, non-vote=0) and results are in Figure 3, showing that citizens in upper classes (i.e., richer people) are more likely to turn out in elections than those of lower social class.

logist_estatus_participacio

Figure 3. Predicted effect of social class on electoral turnout (logistic regression)

Conclusions

Education attainment in Spain is a complex matter with deep roots in history (Franco dictatorship, the role of the Catholic church, etc.), posing problems in the use of education as a predictor for exploring participation inequality and generally political behavior. We have shown that social class might be a more straightforward way to predict the relationship between wealth and participation, and that when we use it, we observe a clear pattern of inequality: in Spain, as in most industrialized countries, those with higher income levels tend to vote more than poorer citizens.

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