Wages, Poverty and Civic Participation

Pew’s Research Center recently noted that financial insecurity has a range of what it called “secondary effects” for communities, including diminished participation in civic and political life.

The question that immediately occurred to me was: is this a feature, or a bug?

Ever since Ronald Reagan identified government as the problem rather than the solution, the ascendant radical right has worked tirelessly (and successfully) to remove or reduce the social supports available to poor Americans through government.  At the same time, the GOP has worked to discourage or suppress the votes of those same Americans.

In today’s America, the financially secure have what political scientists call “voice.” Even before Citizens United and its progeny, the well-to-do could and did donate huge sums to favored politicians. The corporations that are “people”(!) can and do hire well-connected lobbyists to ensure that their interests are represented in the halls of power. As Pew has now pointed out, the financially secure are also much more likely to vote.

Voting is the only way financially insecure folks have voice. If enough poor people voted, it would be much more difficult to fashion a government protective of privilege. Keeping poor folks from the polls is thus in the (short term) interest of the well-off.

As Pete, who frequently comments here has pointed out, these aspects of our civic landscape are not the hallmarks of a democracy; they are the attributes of oligarchy.

One problem with oligarchy is that its goals tend to be both short-term and short-sighted.

If we don’t reverse course soon, if we don’t take the boots of the advantaged off the necks of the impoverished and give disheartened Americans a reason to participate in their own self-government,  that short-sighted focus on the next quarterly statement and disregard of the long-term good will take us all down.

Oligarchs included.


  1. Memory is not very reliable. Many recall that the worship of wealth has always been a primary component of our culture which my memory suggests is neither completely true nor completely false.

    It’s probably true that the most influential models for me about work and wealth were males. My father and my two grandfathers. One was an immigrant cabinet maker, one a college graduate and one a classic unlearned but aggressive capitalist (who started his financially successful career by marrying money).

    We understood that females could choose to work if they wanted to but after the kids were raised and as long as dinner was on the table. Sounds terrible today but back then at least nobody was overburdened with choices about how to live their lives.

    All of my models worked hard and regarded that as what life was about. All provided for their families. The difference in wealth was never what was needed but wanted. My capitalist grandfather had the biggest house, fanciest cars and hosted the grandest meals though the wife of the immigrant cabinet maker served the best food.

    But, here is finally the point, they all saw work as a more or less 40 hour per week necessary but adjunct aspect of life. They worked to live, not either vice or versa.

    Two Republicans and a Democrat mostly due to who they hung around with instead of who was master of their soul as tends to be true today. They all loved America equally and had nothing but respect for Americans in general, ànd especially our government.

    Later in life I experienced the changes in our culture by spending time among the Swiss who were like my formative experiences while America had clearly moved on to our present dysfunction. (It is said that we don’t know one culture until we know two or more)

    The culture then was well suited to the global environment. The American culture today is at odds with it which is a game that’s never been won. The environment always wins in the end.

    How did our culture come to be at odds with the environment? In the simplest possible terms, big media’s influence led to dysfunctional political campaign funding led to oligarchy.

    As mentioned yesterday, the transition back to functional culture is hard to envision as anything but monstrously traumatic for all of those that we’re leaving the world to.

    How I wish it were different.

  2. May I submit that we’re coddling Americans by using the term, voter apathy. We’re providing an excuse for irresponsibility. Simply, what are the ramifications of, “I have utility bills paying apathy.” Or maybe, “I have putting gas in the tank apathy.” Let’s try, “I have changing the baby’s diaper apathy.” Or here’s an even better one, “I have voter apathy.”

    It takes responsibility and some guts to show up, pick a side, and vote.

    Ronald Reagan started a club with his tag line, “Government is the problem. ” Voter apathy has become a club to join, but it’s a club of losers.
    Don’t be a loser. Vote.

    Voting is about the number of touch downs scored. So get a pair of firm balls and get back in the game. 🙂

  3. Sheila:

    What you say is true. However, Indiana is represented in congress by Todd Rokita who was the face of voter disenfranchisement in Indiana as Secretary of State. It all comes back to organizing and mobilizing voters and convincing them to actually go vote.

  4. Was Reagan specific when he stated government is the problem; or was that a generalized statement. I keep wondering with all of the adolation and repeated references to Reagan just when the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s appeared? I vividly remember his first televised speech to the public after inauguration; he began by stating, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, as Charles Dickens said in his novel ‘A Christmas Carol”. I knew we were in trouble.

    Did he specify how and where government was the problem and offer solutions or did he do as the current GOP has become known for; just blame government without offering solutions. Here in Indianapolis we can quickly state that Ballard is the problem; get him out of office to resolve problems…many of us identify the problems with Ballard’s administration, and Daniels’ and Pence’s. Then many of those same wise references to resolve problems sat at home and didn’t bother to vote in 2009 or November 4, 2014. Still raising their voices in complaint and offering resonable solutions. Empty words. Of course the other culprits are the Republicans who complained about conditions, their increasingly difficult lot in life; they did go to the polls and vote for the same Republicans and added a few new ones.

    My “voice” can only be relayed via my computer access to newsletters, petitions and more recently Facebook posts. I read most of those posts about the GOP to keep up with their foolishness; Palin, Romney, Tea Party faction and “The Donald” provide us with their unchanging, vapid aims for 2016. Boehner continues escalating his power over Congress, President Obama and this country. Is there no way to get him out of office; I believe him to be the greatest homegrown terrorist in this country today. Of course we would be faced with the problem of those old men on SCOTUS supporting his actions.

  5. If I had to work 3 minimum-wage jobs to feed my children and pay the rent and other bills, I wouldn’t be able to afford the luxuries of time and money to keep current or pay for newspaper and cable news subscriptions, internet access – let alone the computer – or an automobile to attend community forums on issues of the day. Day to day survival would always trump the time and financial commitment to stay up on the news.

    As someone said long ago, it’s much harder to pull oneself up by the bootstraps if one doesn’t have boots.

  6. Nancy
    You hit the nail squarely on the head. When you’re working as hard as you can just to get through the next days and weeks to provide for your family you come home and feel like you deserve a little mindless enjoyment which is why all those reality shows have been so popular. If you’re poor being “intellectually curious” feels like homework and didn’t you just clock out so you could STOP working?? . The perceived gains to be had are few when you know that money and power control government and you have no real prospects for gaining either.

    The GOTV message falls on deaf ears because we haven’t established a solid and lasting foundation in this country that getting out the vote has ever really mattered to the working class. Voting is an act undertaken by regressives who fear change and progressives who fear complacency- both of these groups united by a sense of hope that maybe – just maybe – things can be different If they make enough noise.

    Those who don’t vote have not bought into the message of hope (and will be hard conversions to make) because they have only known generations of struggle and have begrudgingly accepted that their place in the universe will always be somewhere on the hamster wheel. The non voters choose apathy because hope is just too damned exhausting and I get it. So do those in power who have an interest in maintaining a booth old on the throats of the impoverished. Disenfranchised voters believe that voting is a sure sign of the truly insane among us who believe that by voicing their opinion over and over again and expecting different results we are setting ourselves up for unnecessary disappointment.

    When you have nothing but struggle you may dream, but you dare not hope because more often than not getting your hopes up leads to more disappointment.

    I get it – I really do. The challenge we now face isn’t in getting people to vote, it’s not even in inspiring them to feel like they have a voice in the system- the challenge we face is one of actually holding to account those in office and making the system so transparent that those who wish to seek office merely for financial gain are disincentivized to do so. It will be then that We The People will gain confidence that we have a rightful place at the table of democracy.

  7. “Boot-hold”

    -I should never post from my phone. I always do a terrible job of catching my spelling and formatting mistakes until I actually hit “post comment”.
    My apologies.

  8. Phil, great point. Apathy sounds excusable. Irresponsible is really the point. Our future must be earned by we the people taking responsibility for it. That’s what oligarchy proofs democracy.

  9. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand the reason why so many of the smartest people I know don’t grasp the concept of casting their vote. For most people, the complex process that yields their decision for whom to vote is confused with the act of casting their vote. The decision for whom to vote can be riddled with uncertainty, emotional investment, and frustration. Fine, finish crying, make a decision, and now go vote. The act of casting your vote is about one thing: Math.

    Solve the following math problem:
    Lee has a position of authority to make and change policy and laws.
    Pat wants Lee’s position of authority to make policy and laws. This position of authority is awarded to the one who gets the most votes.
    How many more votes will Pat need than Lee to be awarded the position of authority to make and change policy and laws?

    a.) I don’t like that there are only 2 choices.
    b.) The rich people are making all the rules so they don’t care about us anyway so I don’t have a voice.
    c.) Voting day should be a national holiday.
    d.) War – what it is your good for?
    e.) None of the above.

    Correct answer: e.) None of the above

    Don’t be duped into being a loser. Vote!

  10. I think the best way to get people to vote is to have mail in ballots. November was the first time I did that and it was fast and easy. No postage necessary either.

    A national holiday was a good idea until I realized it would just be another day for people to party, sleep in and become a zombie in front of the tv.

    I think making it mandatory (like Australia) is another good way to force people to participate.

    Just my 2 cents.

  11. Phil,

    If the system were a true one-man-one-vote democracy that would be true, but in our representative democracy (and due to extensive gerrymandering) most of the disenfranchised know that their vote does not carry all that much weight. You only have to look at Gore v. Bush for an excellent example of how nonvoters come to believe they may as well stay home on Election Day. Our system is rife with corruption, injustice and under (or mis) representation and it’s not exactly hidden from plain view.

    It’s like beating a dog over and over and then wondering why it doesn’t come running excitedly to you when you call it for supper. Eventually the scales tip and the perceived benefits of participation seem far less rewarding than the stress and uncertainty of trying to figure out the reality behind the political circus show we’re treated to every election. The only way to balance the scales again is to empower the voter by actually ensuring their vote will count and making the process transparent. Making elections less about who can get the most financing and more about what sound policies they are proposing would go a long way to encourage civic confidence, but that’s not fiscally beneficial to those seeking office who prefer pandering to constituents with cheap entertainment akin to the reality television the masses seem so find of.

  12. While we are enjoying ourselves SO much beating up on the ‘apathetic voter’ why don’t we look at what we have to vote for? Republican tea bagger or republican lite, because, as the Dems are SO fond of repeating on an endless loop–only-conservates-will-win-only-conservatives-will-win. This of course is to completely ignore the history of Indiana. This is the home of Eugene Debs. Birch Bayh won here. Andy Jacobs won here. But now democrats are Evan ‘love me my gazillion dollar a year lobby job’ Bayh and Joe ‘just vote no’ Donnelly. I vote in every damn election, but after the disappointment of Obama, lack of daylight between indiana dems and republicans, I feel more and more like a jerk. The only bright spot on the horizon for me is Richmond, California. The Green Party has been voted into power there (third parties can and do win in other states) and boy howdy has it made a difference. You get a TRULY populist government, and it doesn’t matter how much money the oligarchs throw at it, it doesn’t work. Chevron spent 3 million on their candidate to be the Green mayor. The greens spent about 74,000. So next time I hear that so smug comment about the non-voters, who’s really the chump, Chump?

  13. Well, girl cousin, I must admit that basically the political situation in this country today is deplorable. But…are you familiar with the terms “between a rock and a hard place” and “picking the lesser of two evils”? Somewhere in the Democratic party we may find another Birch Bayh, Andy Jacobs or another Barack Obama. I haven’t been totally satisfied with his administration but he has fought obstacles and obstructionism as no other president has faced. And whether you want to admit it or not, overt and covert racism with his life and the lives of his family at risk 24/7/365. There is also the possibility that somewhere – even in this current corrupt Republican party – there may be another Bill Hudnut. And wouldn’t that be a treasure to find. If we don’t search through the possibilities we won’t find them and even the lack of exceptional Americans to choose from; we must still get to the polls on election day. No vote IS a vote; a vote for the status quo.

  14. Joann Green, that sound too much like the definition of insanity–repeating the same action over and over expecting a different result.

  15. girl cousin; it appears you want to do away with voting entirely. So do we go to the eeny-meeny-miney-moe system? And if so, who do we eeny-meeny-miney-moe and who does the eeny-meeny-miney-moeing if we can’t vote? Your view seems to be that of the entire GOP; bad mouth, complain, refuse to act but…propose no plan to replace the current system. I will stick with the current familiar repetative insanity, chump, till a better system is put in place.

  16. JoAnn, as I discussed on more than one occasion with African-American, black, co-workers in IPS over a period of years, yes, racism is alive; however, as you noted, there’s overt racism and covert racism, and both open-minded blacks and whites will speak about both types of racism with great candor when given the opportunity of trusting each other in authentic settings.

    Yes, today, in the South, racism still exists; however, it’s overt racism, easily recognized, easily identified, and easily avoided simply because the overt racist basically has ‘racist’ written all over his/her persona and does nothing to conceal it. On the other hand, north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the Ohio River for those lacking in knowledge of historical terminology, racism exists in a different form, actually a far more dangerous, an insidious form because it’s covert racism that is easily concealed and difficult to identify simply because the covert racists seem to wear those big plastic smiles, have no trouble slapping a black man on his back as if he’s a real friend.

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