Low income voting matters

One of the benefits of polling data is that, sometimes, such data can be illuminating (or can conversely provide ammo for those “I told you so” moments). One such poll was released by Gallup and picked up by Suzy Khimm. Gallup polled 1,011 Americans to gauge their economic concerns. The results are interesting, but the one aspect that is being written about concerns this particular perspective:

Gallup also includes this bit of quasi-advice:

Americans’ open-ended responses make it clear that any politician attempting to closely match Americans’ worries about the economy should emphasize specifically the jobs situation, the federal deficit, and then the political situation in Washington.

Whether the results are illuminating or you’re telling someone on Twitter now that they were wrong, the intersection of annual income and most cited worry is telling. Essentially, if you make less than 75k a year then your top concern are jobs and unemployment. Above that 75k marker your chief economic anxiety is the national debt/deficit. Now the distance between the statistical differences are not that great, but they are slightly revealing between the highest and lowest income brackets. According to the poll wealthier Americans are relatively unconcerned with a continual decline in the economy, yet for the lowest income bracket it is their second greatest economic anxiety. Of course one could prognosticate why people making less than 30k annually would be worried about instability in the economy – they’re more likely to be employed in sectors that are more senstive to a wider array of economic shocks with less financial cushion.

Better yet, why not look at it in chart form? Via Kevin Drum:

This is intriguing because for 2010 and much of 2011 the primary messaging coming from Washington – by both political parties – was the dire need to address the chief concern of wealthier Americans and not so much about jobs or unemployment. This was a point echoed by Drum, yet I’m sure even he knows the general trend of voting (and, by implication, donating) whereby participation rises with income – although it should be noted that such correlations are not entirely settled or fully explained. That being said, here is a graph of voter turnout from the 2008 Presidential Campaign:

I’ve added the arrows to illustrate voter participation rates for the $20-30K annual income range as well $75-100K. The former rests at 48 percent and the latter at 72.6 percent. Now generally speaking voter turnout for Presidential elections are higher than other types of elections. Futhermore, the participation rate for 2008 (56.8%) was the hightest since 1969 (60.8%). Still, as we will see next, the recent correllation trends for voter turnout and income are not exclusive to Presidential election years. The results from the mid-term 2010 elections look similar (from the 2010 Census Reported Voting and Registration Table 7):

Obviously overall participation rates historically go down in off-year election cycles, and 2010 was no exception, but the upward trend in turnout along the income scale persists.

So much of our dialogue concerning politics and influence centers on the wealthy and the lobbying that such wealth can buy, and for good reason I suppose, but when reading about voter turnout I’m always reminded of one my professors who immigrated from India. She received her grad education in the United States, came from a stable middle-class background, and given the subject of the course – global cities – often spoke of urban issues in her native country. The most impactful point she made occurred when I asked her a question about the organization of slums in India – specifically, if they were technically illegal and occupying increasingly valuable land targeted by moneyed development interests, what was stopping the authorities from simply clearing out the slums? My professor answered: “Because the people living in those slums organize effectively, and more importantly, vote effectively.”

That idea stuck with me later as I was doing research on the effects of neighborhood gentrification on political participation and voter turnout for preexisting residents. I found that, at least in one case study, gentrification had it’s greatest effect on communities for which there were no preexisting, locally-based political organizations. Essentially, without an organized message and a determined turnout on election day I found that gentrifying communities were more likely to implement policies that were deleterious towards long-standing residents.

The point, often beleaguered and passed as generic wisdom to the young and disaffected, is that voting matters. But even more than that – organized political involvement (including voting) around a central message matters. One of the most legitimate complaints I’ve read about the Occupy Wall Street movement is that they’ve excelled at the message and not so much at the political organization. Roughly 36% of households in this country make less than $35,000 annually, according to the Census. Yet only a minority of that percentage votes compared to a majority among higher incomes. All the messaging in the world, or even all the money for that matter, means a lot less than it could if you don’t participate in the system we have for making organized decisions in our society.


6 responses to “Low income voting matters

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