Newswise — For nearly 50 years, Americans have been eligible to vote starting at age 18. Yet the nation’s youngest voters have hardly flocked to the polls. Citizens 18 to 29 routinely post the lowest turnout among all age groups, according to the United States Election Project.

And because poor Americans vote at a lower rate than more affluent citizens, young people from poor families are even less likely to vote than the wealthier members of their age cohort.

A new paper co-authored by a Johns Hopkins Carey Business School researcher points to a possible way to raise the numbers. Voting increased among young people from poor backgrounds after their families began receiving regular disbursements of unearned income, the study says.

Annual payments of a few thousand dollars per household led to increased voter turnout of between 8 and 20 percent among the young people in the study, over a period of about 10 years.

“For those in their formative years who haven’t completed high school, household income matters a lot in determining whether or not they become active voters,” says economist Emilia Simeonova, an associate professor at the Carey Business School.   

“What’s more, we saw that the impact of the unearned income on youth voting was more pronounced among those who had the lowest household incomes at the time the disbursements started,” she adds.

The researchers based their paper on data from the Great Smoky Mountains Survey (GSMS), a longitudinal study launched in 1993, as well as from public voting records. Initiated by Duke University and the state of North Carolina, the GSMS set out to examine the psychological traits of 1,420 poor children in western North Carolina, including several hundred children in the Native American Cherokee tribe.

As it happened, about four years into the study, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opened a casino in the survey zone and started designating half of the profits as extra cash income for adult members of the tribe.

Simeonova and her colleagues focused on the effects of this new yearly income ― about $4,700 per household, or approximately 25 percent of the average Native American family’s annual earnings.

At the start of the payments, the children in the GSMS were 13 to 17 years old. The researchers learned that once the children reached voting age, the youngest ones ― those with the longest exposure to the additional income ― had the highest rate of turnout at the polls.

“That certainly helps underscore our view that extra income can encourage civic activity among children from poor families,” says Simeonova.

The voting patterns of the adults in the GSMS, on the other hand, did not change after the income disbursements started. “It appears that adult voting patterns are locked-in and unaffected by changes in income that occur later in their lives,” Simeonova says.

Increased voting among the youths might be attributed to their being able to finish high school on time, and to their families’ being able to avoid relocation, thanks to the extra income, the researchers say. Such factors might have contributed to the young people’s “social capital,” meaning they felt more committed to their communities and more likely to engage in civic activity.

“Regardless of the exact reasons, the additional income narrowed the turnout gap between children from disadvantaged families and their better-off peers,” says Simeonova. “From this, we see the potential long-term benefit that, as more people from lower-income groups vote, their views and their concerns will attract more attention from elected officials.”

The study, “Family Income and the Intergenerational Transmission of Voting Behavior: Evidence from an Income Intervention,” has appeared as a working paper on the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research. Along with Simeonova of Johns Hopkins, the authors are Associate Professor Randall Akee of the University of California, Los Angeles; Professor William Copeland and Professor E. Jane Costello, both of Duke; and Assistant Professor John Holbein of Brigham Young University.

This same group of researchers, minus Holbein, previously wrote a paper showing that the cash disbursements significantly improved the psychological well-being of adolescent children in the GSMS.

“There may be a broader effect from these disbursements than was thought before,” says Simeonova. “Our new study suggests that social policies aimed at reducing economic disadvantage may also help improve voter turnout in future generations.”