Authors: Students* of the “Experimental Designs in Social and Political research” class (Instructor: Riccardo Ladini) – Academic Year 2022/2023
Poverty alleviation is a specific welfare issue which has gained a relevant position in public debates in the recent years, in particular in relation to the necessity of an economic relief strategy for the lowest income groups after the COVID-19 pandemic. The terminology used when dealing with the topic is diversified.
Universal basic income (UBI) is a form of poverty alleviation, based on income, which grants an equally stipulated remuneration to all individuals of adult age within a country, in order to create a security mechanism against poverty (Bryan, 2021). Guaranteed minimum income (GMI) is a form of settled income for all workers, that stipulates an obligation by all employers to offer at minimum a defined wage or a specific form of contract with the intent to offer accessibility to a person’s basic needs (ibid.).
During Easter 2020, via a letter to popular movements and organisations throughout the world, Pope Francis advocated the necessity to discuss minimum wages (Schneck, 2020). While using the terminology of Universal basic income he was underlining the matter of Guaranteed minimum income for all, in particular the most vulnerable workers:
“Many of you live from day to day, without any type of legal guarantee to protect you.[…]you who are informal, working on your own or in the grassroots economy, you have no steady income to get you through this hard time. This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out[…]” – Pope Francis, 2020
In light of the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pope highlighted the lack of a security plan against economic instability for most workers. By many UBI proponents this message was seen as possibly “game-changing” (Schneck, 2020). From the perspective of others, the establishment of a universal basic income is still considered unrealistic and too expensive.
It is relevant to investigate the public resonance of Pope Francis’s declaration on the topic since his speeches and sermons have a considerable influence on people from all over the world, considering that the Catholic community is one of the largest religious ones, made up of more than 1 billion people (Pew Research Centre, 2013).
In Italy, thanks to the closeness to the Vatican State and its historical influence on the territory, Pope Francis’ opinion could have a significant impact on Italian population’s thoughts. By employing an original survey experiment, we will empirically assess such a statement.
Our study aims at analysing whether individuals have a tendency to associate themselves more with the necessity of a basic stable income for all workers if the issue is presented in reference to the role of a generally positive media figure, like Pope Francis‘ one. In other words, the research will investigate the effects of a religious position to moralise a political and social issue in an effort to analyse a cross-partisan response. Previous studies have, for instance, assessed the influence of Pope Francis’ opinions on public attitudes towards climate change (Schuldt et al., 2016). Indeed, the Pope Francis effect could be considered impactful on a wider spectrum of different socio-political issues. Our study stems from this core hypothesis and tries to answer a question related to the effect that Pope Francis’ advocation for workers’ rights has in relation to the public opinion, and to understand the scope, limitations and range through which such effect can take place:
Does Pope Francis support to guaranteed basic income have an influence on public opinion? Does the Pope Francis effect have a neutral, positive or negative outcome in supporting the issue?
We expect a positive influence of Pope Francis’ on the public attitude towards a basic income for all workers. In addition, the expectation is that the influence is higher among people trusting Pope Francis
DATA AND EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN
The data come from the first wave of ResPOnsE COVID-19 project. For this study, the period of data collection is April 20-May 15, 2020. The sample was drawn from an opt-in panel of an Italian survey research institute (Swg S.P.A.) and it reproduces the population distributions for sex and geographical area of residence.
Participants were randomly divided using a split-half design into treatment (N=2,254) and control groups (N=2,347). Participants assigned to the treatment group expressed their opinion on the Pope Francis’ proposal of introducing a guaranteed basic wage for all workers, including precarious and self-employed. In comparison, those assigned to the control condition where asked to about their position on guaranteed basic wage’s proposal of others.
- Control Group: “Anonymous message”: “Some people proposed the introduction of a universal basic income for every worker including temporary and self-employed workers. Are you for or against?”
- Treatment Group: “Endorsed message”: ”Pope Francis proposed the introduction of a universal basic income for every worker including temporary and self-employed workers. Are you for or against?”
The answers were categorised into four options on a 1-4 Likert scale, from “Totally disagree” to “Totally agree” (and the “don’t know” category)
For the sake of this work we also focus on participants’ answers to the question of trust towards Pope Francis (original variable on a 0-10 scale, then dichotomized).
By analysing the control and the treatment groups we can see that the experiment showed no significant impact of the Pope Francis priming on the percentage of total disagreement with the statement (Table 1). Differently, in the treatment group there is a remarkable increase in people who strongly agree with the basic income for workers’ claim (+5 percentage points). In general, we can say that the Pope Francis effect has positively influenced the public opinion by increasing the number of people who strongly agree on the subject, draining from the middle categories of agreement and leaving unchanged the frequency of people in total disagreement.
|Control (Some)||Treatment (Pope Francis)|
|1. Totally disagree||4.4||4.4|
|4. Totally agree||20.9||26.0|
|Total||100 (N=2,254)||100 (N=2,347)|
Even the comparison of the variable’s means between the two groups reveal a slight difference, as the treatment group’s mean is significantly higher (people agree more on the subject) than the control group (3.08 vs 2.98 on a 1-4 scale, n=3,886). This additional clue helps in highlighting the general positive effect that Pope Francis has on the public opinion.
A further analysis takes into consideration the relationship between the experimental condition and the level of trust in the mediatic figure of Pope Francis of each group in explaining support for the guaranteed basic income. After converting the level of trust into a dichotomous variable, the data showed that in the control group there is a small difference in the support for the policy between those who have high trust (6-10) in Pope Francis and those who have low trust (0-5). The mean difference, indeed, is equal to 0.16.
On the contrary, in the treatment group the gap in the mean of agreement between high trust versus low trust in Pope Francis is remarkable (0.34, statistically higher than the gap found in the control group). Moreover, in the treatment group people who have a high trust in the Pope show a higher support for the guaranteed basic income than people with a high trust in the control group. On the other hand, among people with low trust in Pope Francis there is no difference in supporting the basic income policy between the treatment and the control group.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
This study had the aim to investigate deeper the effect of Pope Francis’ figure on the public opinion, specifically in relation to the theme of economic relief for workers through the settlement of a guaranteed basic income. Thanks to this experimental analysis, which had divided the participants between control and treatment group, it was possible to administer two questions on the topic, only one of them making reference to Pope Francis’ statement. The results drawn from these data concluded that there is an actual “Pope Francis effect” influencing the responses on workers’ economic security measures, since the general mean of agreement with the statement was different than the one of the control group. In particular, it is possible to state that this effect resulted to be positive, since the mean of the treatment group was higher.
In addition, if we analyse further in detail the data, it emerges that the reference to Pope Francis had a strong positive effect only on the segment of the participants from the treatment group who already had a higher trust in Him, while there was no effect on people who did not trust him. Nevertheless, the general difference in means between the groups was statistically relevant.
In the end, this analysis can be the starting point for a deeper investigation on Pope Francis effect on other global interesting topics like abortion, poverty and LGBTQ+ rights. Furthermore, it could be interesting to study if this influence is only in relation to the public figure of Pope Francis or it could be applied also to other well-known spiritual chiefs/characters like the Dalai Lama and to non-spiritual ones like Greta Thunberg.
Bryan, Mark (2021) What is a minimum income guarantee? and how does it relate to ubi? UBI Lab Network, What is a Minimum Income Guarantee? And how does it relate to UBI? — UBI Lab Network
Pew Research Institute, (2013), The Global Catholic Population, The Global Catholic Population | Pew Research Center
Schneck, Stephen (2020), Fair wages are more than a living wage, Pope Francis says, U.S. Catholic Fair wages are more than a living wage, Pope Francis says (uscatholic.org)
Schuldt, Jonathon P., Adam R. Pearson, Rainer Romero-Canyas, Dylan Larson-Konar, (2017), Brief exposure to Pope Francis heightens moral beliefs about climate change, Climatic Change, 141, 167-177. DOI 10.1007/s10584-016-1893-9
*Note on Autorhship
This paper has been drafted as a choral effort during the laboratory “Experimental Designs in Social and Political research”, (Instructor: Riccardo Ladini), in the third trimester of the academic year 2021-22 (May.June). Among others, contributions to the text were supplied by: Sara Bellofatto, Riccardo Caldarelli, Lucia Faggiana and Quynh Nhu Nguyen. Yaren Dilek, Soukaina Filali and Mert Micik participated in the discussion about the experiment.