Economic inequality—the gap between rich and poor—should concern policymakers for many reasons: humanitarian concern for the everyday challenges faced by the working poor; the cost of social supports needed to fill the gap between what people earn and what they need in order to live; and the substantial drag on the economy from weak demand (when people lack discretionary income, they cannot buy many goods and services). And of course, social scientists have long recognized that unequal societies are unstable societies.
Those concerns are widely acknowledged. Less recognized is the harm done to democratic systems when large numbers of Americans live in or on the edge of poverty. Those people lack what political scientists call voice.
Democratic theory begins with the concept of membership, the right–and duty– of (competent adult) members of a society to participate equally in the citizenship responsibilities of the nation.
The most prominent responsibility, of course, is voting, and even before the current Republican efforts to make voting much more difficult for poor and minority citizens, turnout in poorer precincts was low. There are any number of reasons why people preoccupied with making it through the week—paying rent and putting food on the table—have little time or energy left for civic duties. In many states, including my own Indiana, polling places are inconvenient and they close early, making it very difficult for people who work long hours, or who may not have ready access to transportation, to cast a ballot.
If participation at the polls is skewed toward more affluent Americans, giving the comfortable more voice, other mechanisms to influence public policy are even more unevenly distributed.
Poor Americans do not send lobbyists to the halls of Congress or to their local statehouses. They rarely write letters to the editor (assuming that quaint effort to enter the public conversation still matters). When legislators hold hearings on issues that will affect middle class families and the working poor, they are unlikely to face citizens from those constituencies who have come to testify.
Poor citizens are also highly unlikely to make political contributions. (For that matter, according to Open Secrets, only a tiny proportion of the public—fewer than 1%–makes political contributions of $200 or more.)
Even the most conscientious policymakers can only act upon information they receive, and even when there is no quid pro quo, it is human nature to at least listen to people who have contributed to your campaign or your political party.
The result of disproportionate participation and information asymmetry is disproportionate legislative attention to the concerns and desires of those who can and do participate.
It isn’t just legislative inaction. Poor neighborhoods notoriously receive less attention from municipal agencies; streets in such neighborhoods are the last to be plowed or paved, parks and other public amenities are more likely to be neglected, since more empowered residents know how to make their needs known, and have the time and wherewithal to communicate with local government.
Lack of voice translates into a marginalized civic status– poor Americans lack the means to influence the system, or to change policies that operate to keep them marginalized.
In a variety of ways, they are second-class citizens–holders of “class B” memberships in the American polity. It’s something we need to fix, but the remedy is by no means obvious.