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Cuomo's 'free tuition' plan is no bargain for the poor

You can’t blame Gov. Andrew Cuomo for a "free college" tuition initiative that sounds like a liberal’s dream but is actually a lot less progressive than it seems.

Any rational politician would do the same thing if he wanted to win re-election in a state like New York or still had hopes of galvanizing a progressive coalition for a White House bid.

Cuomo is pushing a plan that actually will help the upper middle class a lot more than the poor for a simple reason: The poor don’t vote as much.

And a new body of research indicates that has huge consequences, in contrast to earlier contentions that it didn’t matter because non-voters tended to mirror voters in their opinions.

Cuomo’s plan for free tuition at New York’s public colleges and universities will benefit the upper middle class more than low-income students because the latter already use state and federal aid programs to cover their tuition. If anything, some experts say, it could hurt the poor by attracting more middle income families, crowding out low-income students if space isn’t expanded.

But anyone who looks at voting patterns shouldn’t be surprised at the proposal’s target audience.

U.S. Census voting surveys show a steady increase in turnout as one proceeds up the income ladder, no matter the election. In 2008, for instance, those in families earning less than $20,000 voted at a 51.9 percent rate, while those earning between $50,000 and $75,000 voted at a 70.9 percent rate and those earning over $100,000 voted at a 79.8 percent clip.

The pattern was similar in 2012, when about 40 percent of those earning less than $20,000 reported voting, compared with 63.7 percent of those earning $50,000 to $75,000 and 76.9 percent of those earning $150,000 or more. In mid-term elections, without the presidency as a draw, the numbers are lower but the pattern is similar.

In other words, the rich really are different: They vote more, dismissing the canard that voting doesn’t matter. And it matters more the less you earn.

A team led by Loyola University’s Vincent Mahler looked at turnout rates by income level in 14 developed countries to see if voting has an impact on government efforts to help citizens – otherwise derided as "income redistribution" by critics who defend the United States’ obscene levels of inequality.

Their 2015 study found that we have far bigger voting gaps between the rich and poor than the other nations, and that "as the income skew of turnout rises, the extent of government redistribution declines." Not surprisingly, they found that this "negative relationship is largely driven by a single country, the United States," where the turnout gap is higher "and whose transfer redistribution (is) much lower, than those of any other country."

In other words, voting matters when it comes to divvying up resources. As the authors put it, a higher voting rate "especially (by) those in the low and middle parts of the income spectrum, does indeed seem to be associated with greater redistribution in their favor."

That means if the poor and working classes voted here to the same degree they do in other countries, Cuomo might have proposed a college aid plan more in their favor.

But they don’t. He didn’t. Neither will most other elected officials. And no one should be surprised why.

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