Political engagement, it appears, is a privilege for those who aren’t struggling to make ends meet
Income inequality was last year’s big economic discussion. Will political inequality be the focus this year?Those who have fervently held political beliefs tend to have a common bond: they have enough money to do so.Being politically engaged is a perk of class — namely, the working class, middle class, and rich. The numbers tell the story: The financially secure are more likely to register and more likely to vote. 94% of those who are most financially secure were also registered to vote. They were also three times more likely to vote than their poorer counterparts, found Pew Research Center. Just 54% of poor Americans, or those who struggle to make ends meet, were registered to vote in the 2014 election. That’s bad news for the Democrative party. According to the survey, many of those who were financially insecure Americans leaned Democratic – 42% to 17% – and most of them were unlikely to vote. Just one in five financial insecure Americans were among likely voters. The definition of financial security is a broad one. To determine whether the 3,154 Americans surveyed were financially secure, Pew focused on very basic financial goods such as checking account, a savings account, a credit card and a retirement savings. Those who were counted as financially insecure weren’t just Americans who lacked any of the above, but also Americans who depended on benefits such as food stamps or Medicaid and had trouble paying bills, affording housing, and medical care. In their struggles to make ends meet, these financial insecure Americans might have also borrowed money from family and friends.
There are plenty of reasons why Americans who struggle to make ends meet aren’t politically engaged. Most of the reason are complicated and often interconnected, says Zoltan Hajnal, professor of political science at University of California in San Diego. “They can’t afford to take time off from work to vote. They are dealing with more major problems like trying to find the next paycheck. They are just more stressed than those are more well-off,” he says. “Politics seem like a more distant phenomenon and less pressing for them because there so many other things that they have to deal with.” Poor Americans tend to work more, leaving little time to debate politics. More than 7.5 million Americans work two jobs. For them, being plugged into the political chatter and caring about the latest DC-related drama becomes secondary to meeting all of their financial obligations. Paying for cable so that they can watch CNN, MSNBC or FOX News is not a top priority for them. As a result, just 26% of of financially insecure Americans knew which party was in control of the House and Senate, compared to 62% of those better-off. The lack of political engagement among the poor isn’t a one time thing, or even just a recent phenomenon. Just 30% of the least financially secure voted in the 2010 elections, while 69% of the most financially secure Americans did. Lack of education is often at the core of this. “Politics itself is a complex phenomenon that requires a certain level expertise, of knowledge – and folks who are left uneducated are more likely to be confused and turned off by the political process,” says Hajnal. Poor Americans mistrust government. They think it’s not looking out for their interest – 60% of them believe that government needs to do more for the needy even if that means more debt, found Pew. Most importantly, they think their vote doesn’t really count. So why bother? And for many of them voting is just that – a bother. Making voting easier helps increase turnout, says Hajnal. For example, some of those struggling to find time to vote have found voting to be easier in the most recent election thanks to extended polling station hours and early voting. The bothersome-aspect of voting, however, has to do with more than just taking time off work and brushing up on politics. “Some of the voter-ID laws passed last election make voting more arduous, especially for the poor who are already on the fence about whether participation matters. Any small barrier is likely to turn them off, explains Hajnal. As a result, the more the US reduces barriers to voting, the more likely it is to see an equal distribution of different types of voters – including poorer ones.
Jana Kasperkevic; The Guardian