Capstone: Emma Sifre

Thesis: Committed to Inequality? How Learning about Inequality Changes Preferences for Redistribution

Thesis Supervisor: Thomas Hayes, Political Science

Over the past forty years, economic inequality in the United States has increased to such extreme levels that it has distorted the American economy and the health of American Democracy. Research on the effects of inequality on our economic and political institutions has been comprehensive, but recent events have shed light on the importance of studying public opinion on economic inequality as well. The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, for example, was a grassroots campaign focused on inequality. Although division along class lines in politics is not new, this year’s election cycle has mobilized huge groups of American voters around the issue of economic inequality. It has tapped into deeply rooted sentiments about how much people have and what they feel they deserve. The significant consequences of economic inequality, and the newfound vigor with which people are mobilizing around the issue, has prompted me to focus my Honors thesis on public opinion about it.

I used a survey to test how participants’ beliefs about the fairness of the economic system affects their preferences for inequality-reducing policies. I then tested whether increasing the saliency of inequality by prompting participants to engage in learning tasks has a long-term effect on preferences. One major problem with designing a survey experiment is that public opinion is easily swayed by inflammatory rhetoric or trigger words. It was important that, in testing preferences, I used very carefully selected language to ensure that the results were not skewed by emotionally-charged reactions to words like “welfare” or “socialism.” Creating the survey required intensive research into public opinion data and a pilot study using different variations of words.

Emma Sifre at Frontiers
Emma Sifre at Frontiers

I found that participants who held meritocratic beliefs were slightly more supportive of programs intended to reduce inequality, but that the effect of learning tasks was only significant in the short-term. This finding was particularly interesting in a time when economic inequality has become a highly visible issue; it indicates that increasing the saliency of the issue may not follow citizens into the polling booths.

by Emma Sifre
Individualized Major: The Interdisciplinary Study of Economic Inequality

Capstone: Jessica Topper

Jessica Topper
Jessica Topper

“What is at stake is nothing less than the survival and well-being of a generation of innocents.”
– Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Throughout my final year at the University of Connecticut, I have dedicated my Honors senior thesis to researching the latest crisis in the Middle East. The political and economic ramifications of oppressive regimes and the emergence of extremist non-state actors are important, but it’s the dire position of the Syrian people that is the focal point of my thesis.

The Middle East, as a region, has overwhelming numbers of displaced people due to political instability and its resulting terror and destruction. At the beginning of 2016, for example, over half of the Syrian population had been forced to flee their homes in search of safety. Unfortunately, it is all too common for those who have fled to end up in limbo. Their lost identity and sense of not belonging is difficult enough, but refugees are often objects of sluggish bureaucratic processes and incoherent immigration policies in the nations in which they are seeking asylum. My thesis will explore the refugees’ migration patterns and the ramifications of their arrival in other nations. A vital aspect of this research will be a comparative study of how the United States and countries in Europe and the Middle East grant refugee status and asylum to people from Syria.

The violence and oppression utilized by the Syrian government has escalated a domestic issue to one of international scope. Countries concerned with their interests in the region, and with threats to their security, must balance military response with isolationism, and judge the political consequences associated with accepting the victims of this crisis. This problem has been at the forefront of leaders’ agendas around the world. As each country responds to this crisis, the range in immigration policies has become increasingly polarized. What are the actualities of Syrian immigration? Is the heightened concern over Syrian refugees and asylum seekers just a wave of paranoia? How does the United States compare to Europe and the Middle East when it comes to assisting those displaced? This thesis will explore the realities of the Syrian civil war in terms of statistical data, policy changes, and the impact on countries involved in the conflict. It is inarguable that the Syrian civil war has caused the people of this country trauma many cannot imagine. With much confusion around the world over Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the development of proxy wars within the country, and how these refugees will actually affect other nations, it is imperative to understand the entirety of this international crisis.

by Jessica Topper
Individualized Major: International Relations (focus on the Middle East)

NOTE: Jessica’s work has been featured on the CLAS website.