Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Innumeracy and General Assembly Salary

By Christopher Cooper

State legislators don’t make much money for their legislative service, and that’s an understatement. In North Carolina, they receive $13,951 a year, plus a mileage reimbursement and a per diem for time in session. This paltry salary has wide-ranging implications for understanding North Carolina politics, as I discussed in this piece for The Assembly. 


Despite the problems of staggeringly low legislative pay, efforts to increase legislative pay have not progressed very far in the Tar Heel State. I have always suspected that one reason why that may be the case is that the average North Carolinian drastically overestimates how much legislators make. If that’s the case, would correcting these misperceptions help? I tried to answer those questions in some recent research that I published in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly


The paper includes data from ~2000 registered voters four states: California, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and New Hampshire—states that vary in terms of legislative salary (with California at the top of the salary scale, New Hampshire at the bottom and Wisconsin and North Carolina in the middle), region, and partisanship. In this post, though, I’ll just focus on North Carolina.

Do Citizens Know How Much Legislators Make?


To find out what citizens know about state legislative salary, I asked participants in the study to “please estimate the salary of a member of the North Carolina General Assembly in the space below.” 
It is difficult to overstate the amount of innumeracy I found. The average respondent estimated the salary of North Carolina General Assembly members to be $124,705—a far cry from the $13,951 that they actually receive. Relying on the median instead of the mean brings the estimates slightly more in line, but only slightly (the median respondent misstated the actual salary by $61,000 in North Carolina (over 4x the actual salary). Only 7 % of respondents in North Carolina came within $10,000 of the actual salary. This exceeds the degree of innumeracy found in studies of other policy areas.


Does Providing Correct Information Change Opinions?


To find out if correcting misinformation could help change policy opinions, I split the sample in half. After all respondents estimated state legislative salary in their state, half of the respondents were presented with the actual salary information and asked to type it into a blank in the survey. The other half received no such correction and were allowed to continue with their misperceptions. Both groups were then asked a series of questions about the General Assembly.


Approximately 18% of the North Carolinians who did not have their misperceptions corrected supported a legislative salary increase v. almost half (48%) of those whose innumeracy was corrected. While increasing legislative salary was not the majority opinion even among those who had their innumeracy corrected, a difference of around 30 percentage points is notable in both statistical and substantive terms. Further, the correction was relatively mild, and only delivered one time; it stands to reason that repeated corrections or reminders might have an even greater impact. 


I found similar results when presenting respondents with a similar question asking them if members of the General Assembly were "overpaid" (those who were presented with correct salary data were much less likely to hold that opinion than those whose innumeracy was never corrected).

While the corrections were effective in changing attitudes about issues directly related to legislative salary, they had no effect in changing more generalized attitudes about the General Assembly (what I refer to in the paper as "indirect policy opinions"). More specifically, people who had their opinions corrected were no more likely to believe that members of the General Assembly "provide strong leadership" "are honest" "are intelligent" or "are serving in the state legislature for the right reasons." 



So, what can we conclude that helps us better understand North Carolina politics? First, people vastly overestimate of what members of the General Assembly earn per year. Correcting that misinformation can help garner support for legislative salary increases, but coming to a better understanding of state legislative compensation does not seem to improve attitudes about the General Assembly more generally. This study also suggests that informing the public has the potential to shift attitudes about other policies that are closely related to the misinformation in question.


Chris Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. He tweets at @chriscooperwcu