Gendered and partisan responses to proposed rate increases
[An absurdly busy couple of months has kept me away from the blogosphere—sorry. Will try to get back into a regular groove now]
Winning public support for investments in infrastructure is critical to achieving water and sewer utilities’ environmental and public health missions. My last post reported some findings from a randomized framing experiment that I conducted with the U.S. Water Alliance to test which water/sewer system benefits matter most when making public appeals about the value of water. A thousand survey respondents were asked about their support for a hypothetical rate increase, and then randomly assigned to one of four benefits that would be associated with the rate increase: reduced pollution, safer drinking water, better tasting drinking water, or access and affordability.* Data from a thousand voters in the study revealed that willingness to pay for rate increases was greatest when framed in terms of delivering safer drinking water.
An advantage of large, randomized survey experiments is that they allow us to see whether framing affects different kinds of people differently. As it turns out, framing rate increases in terms of safer drinking water affects people differently by sex and partisanship—with important implications for savvy water sector communicators.
Men, women, and (safer) water
Men and women think differently about water. As I’ve discussed before, in the United States, women report higher average concern for water-related policy issues than do men. Although these sex differences aren’t large, they’re consistent. So I expected that women and men might respond differently to our framing experiment, and they sure did:
Women who got the safe drinking water frame were 14% more likely to support rate increases compared with women who got other frames.** For men, the difference was 6%—enough to suggest a framing effect, but not a statistically significant effect by conventional scientific standards.
On average, Democrats were more willing than Republicans to pay for water/sewer rate increases, regardless of how we framed the issue. Here is the likelihood of supporting a water/sewer rate increase by partisanship, measured with a standard seven-point scale of party identification (after adjusting for sex, race, ethnicity, and income):
But something interesting happens when we look at framing effects by partisanship. Below is the likelihood of supporting a rate increase by partisanship under the safe drinking water frame and all other frames. The top, light blue dashed line is the likelihood of supporting a rate increase under the safe drinking water frame; the darker solid line is the average likelihood for other frames.
Framing rate increases in terms of safer drinking water had a much more powerful, positive effect on Republicans than on Democrats. As you can see, there’s little difference between the two lines at the Democratic end of the scale. For Democrats, support for rate increases doesn’t vary much under different frames—although the safer drinking water frame gets a little bit stronger support, the difference is statistically insignificant.
But the framing effect grows as partisanship shifts to Independent and Republican. The safer drinking water frame boosts likelihood of willingness to pay rate increases by a statistically significant 9% for Independents. The framing effect was even stronger for Republicans, raising the likelihood of supporting a rate increase by an astonishing 15% for voters who identify Strongly as Republicans. Crucially in the world of electoral politics, the safe drinking water framing pushes average willingness to pay over 50% even for Strong Republicans.
There are a couple of ways to interpret these results. It is possible that Republicans care more about safe drinking water than Democrats do. But a more plausible explanation is that Democrats are simply more supportive of rate increases regardless of framing, and so any framing effects are stronger for Independents and Republicans than for Democrats.
Implications for water comms
Breaking down framing effects by sex and partisanship might seem weird for an issue like water/sewer rates. After all, utilities don’t serve one sex or another, and water is not an especially partisan issue. So why does any of this matter?
It matters because sometimes we’re trying to communicate with different audiences in different contexts. Evidence from this experiment suggests that appeals to drinking water safety can be especially useful in securing support from women and women’s organizations, for example. The findings also point to drinking water safety as an effective messaging strategy for utilities in American communities where voters or governing boards are predominantly Independent or Republican.
More generally, this study illustrates the value of a scientific approach to designing and evaluating communications. Just as we rely on science to design water treatment technology, rigorous research can help utility leaders communicate efficiently and effectively. Utilities that have the resources to devote to communications research will develop valid and useful tactics using experiments like this one.† Randomized experiments can be used to design everything from Consumer Confidence Reports to assistance program enrollment to conservation campaigns.
You can read more about the 2021 Value of Water Survey framing experiment in the full research article.
*Respondents could answer on a four-point scale: very willing, somewhat willing, somewhat unwilling, or very unwilling. For simplicity’s sake, the analysis here recodes these responses as binary (willing/unwilling). Analyses of the same data as continuous or ordinal yield consistent results.
**The US Water Alliance's 2021 Value of Water Survey included only two sex/gender categories, which were coded by interviewers.
†It would be great to run a similar experiment focused on sewer and stormwater rates that framed benefits in terms of “fishable and swimmable water” or “flood control” or other benefits. Got a national survey in the works and room for some experimental items? Hit me up!