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How the Poorest Americans Dropped Out of Politics

• May 21, 2009 • 5:30 PM

New research suggests that as America has become more segregated by class, the power of place has exacerbated the participatory bias in American politics.

In the 2008 election, lower-income Americans voted at significantly lower rates than higher-income Americans. This was not, in itself, news. Just as in 2004, more than 60 percent of voters came from families above the median household income of $50,000. That family income is a significant predictor of individual voting is a long-standing and oft-lamented fact of American political life.

But over the last several decades, inequality in the United States has worsened. Between 1973 and 2000, the richest one-fifth of Americans saw their family income grow by 66.9 percent, while the poorest one-fifth saw their income increase by only 12.1 percent. At the same time, poverty has become more geographically concentrated. In 1970, the average poor family inhabited a census tract where only 13.6 percent of the other families were poor; by 1990, it was double that — 27.9 percent.

Joe Soss and Lawrence Jacobs, professors of political science at the University of Minnesota, were curious to understand how these two trends, which have typically been studied in isolation, related to each other. What they found was that over time, while the probability of voting has declined for all Americans, the declines have been the steeper among people living in low-income counties, and steepest for low-income people living in low-income counties. As Americans have become more segregated by class, the trend seems to have exacerbated the participatory balance in politics.

Soss said it was “stunning … to see the pattern emerge over the course of a couple of decades. We’ve gotten to a point where there are completely different relationships with class and voting patterns, and that’s a pretty remarkable change.”

In the 1970s, whether an individual came from a low-, medium- or high-income county didn’t seem to have any predictive effect on whether or not that person voted, though rich people still voted at greater rates than poor people. But over the past three decades, as the nation became more segregated by wealth, the effect of living in a poor county, independent of one’s own wealth, became a significant predictor of whether an individual voted or not. In other words, while individual-level poverty has always been associated with less civic engagement, increasing class-based segregation is widening the participatory gap between rich and poor even further. The results are published in the spring issue of Political Science Quarterly.

“Our argument is to say, look, it’s not just enough to look at changes in income and wealth,” explained Soss. “These have been bundled with really profound changes. … We’ve become far more class-segregated in residential neighborhoods, and as this has happened, it has acted kind of like a force multiplier.”

In general, scholars know that poor voters suffer from a number of obstacles to political participation. They tend to have weaker civic ties. Candidates are less likely to speak to their needs or to try to mobilize them. Workday voting, felony disenfranchisement and bureaucratic registration rules all reduce turnout.

But several trends have exacerbated these obstacles, Soss and Jacobs note in their article. The rate of incarceration has increased sixfold over the past three decades. Unions and fraternal civic associations that once plugged lower-income individuals into politics have declined significantly. Meanwhile, the role of money in politics has greatly increased, and the civic groups of old have been replaced by checkbook issue groups that tend to cater to the concerns of those who write the checks.

A second set of trends involves the changes in public policy and the messages that these policies send to the less well-off. “There are more get-tough programs,” said Soss. “They are more focused on discipline. They are treating the poor as people who have suspect behavior that needs to be changed.”

Changes in law enforcement, welfare police and a general drying-up of social services and public assistance, argue Soss and Jacobs, have sent a message that government doesn’t really empathize with the plight of poor people — so why should poor people care about government or even bother to vote?

“In the most disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Soss and Jacobs write, “voting is more likely to be seen as a sham.”

And over time, all of this feeds on itself. As poor people in poor neighborhoods vote less, politicians become even less responsive to them, paying attention instead to the concerns of their wealthier constituencies, who vote more reliably and attend fundraisers. The better-off get money for schools and other institutions to help them develop civic skills. The worse-off just get more cause for cynicism.

And yet, there is an increasing concern among all Americans (even the most well-off) that inequality in the U.S. has gone too far and something needs to be done. That is one of the main findings of Class War?: What Americans Really Think about Inequality, a new book by Jacobs and Benjamin I. Page, a professor of political science at Northwestern University.

“Majorities of Americans — majorities of Republicans as well as Democrats, and majorities of the affluent as well as middle- and lower-income earners — see inequality in the United States having become excessive,” Page and Jacobs write.

For example: 72 percent of Americans (56 percent of Republicans; and 60 percent of high-income Americans) think that “differences in income in America are too large.” Even 56 percent of Americans (39 percent of Republicans; and 53 percent of high-income Americans) say that “our government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.”

But Page and Jacobs also find a strong conservative streak in American public opinion. Even Democrats and low-income people are strong believers in the free-enterprise system and the importance of private property, and are willing to tolerate some disparities in income, which they think are necessary to motivate people. Page and Jacobs reconcile this seeming schizophrenia by describing Americans as “conservative egalitarians.” What this means that Americans are much likely to support redistributive policies that provide equal opportunities.

Soss and Jacobs’ research suggests that it’s going to take a whole mix of policy changes to reverse the slide of inequality and the participatory imbalance. “All of these effects are at the margins,” said Soss. “There is no silver bullet.”

More fundamentally, it may also take a change in the way we think about political participation.

“Some of the problem here is that we think of politics as divorced from the rest of life, and that it’s just its own thing,” Soss added. “Part of what we’re arguing is for a more ecological perspective. Patterns emerge from the way we live together in society. If you want to change patterns of participation, they’re not likely to change as long as we live our lives more separately and more unequally.”

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Lee Drutman
Lee Drutman, Ph.D., teaches at the University of California Washington D.C. Semester Program. He has worked as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, Slate, Politico and the American Prospect.

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