Poverty in America is undermining the fabric of democracy. Everyone is aware of the negative impacts of poverty on stress levels and overall health, but it also impedes citizens’ ability to participate in democracy. Although there are many ways in which someone can participate in the democratic process, by far the most common method is voting. Thus, low voter turnout is an important issue. However, what is more pressing is that there is a clear correlation between income and voting frequency. People that have more money are much more likely to vote than their lower income counterparts.
This pattern poses a threat to democracy since democratic governments operate under the basic premise that they represent the will of the people. But certain groups of people are overrepresented in American Democracy. The wealthy have more resources at their disposal that they can use to exercise their will disproportionately in the American political system. This is the nature of a capitalist society. Although levels of poverty have consistently decreased every year for the last five years, poverty levels still remain high. In 2019, there were 34.0 Million Americans in poverty, around 11 percent of the country’s population. Americans living in poverty are much less likely to vote than their wealthier counterparts. Only 30% of people with an annual income under $10,000 voted in the 2018 midterm elections, versus 60 percent of people with an annual income between $100,000- 149,000. 70 percent of people in the lowest income bracket did not bother to participate in the election. When a democratic system excludes 70 percent of its poorest people, it is time to examine the system for socioeconomic biases which contribute to democratic erosion.
What is it about poverty that keeps people from voting? Clearly, socioeconomic status plays a role; otherwise we would see around the same level of participation across all income groups. Lack of electoral participation can be attributed to two main consequences of poverty: lack of resources or lack of political engagement.
In actuality, lack of political engagement is the result of lack of resources. Citizens are not likely to have the time to research candidates or ballot measures if they are too busy worrying about making sure there is food on the table. Thus, the impoverished in society get caught in a vicious cycle where they are so preoccupied with trying to survive that they cannot advocate for themselves in the political system. Thus, when people cite lack of political engagement as a rationale for impoverished individuals choosing not to vote, it is essential to dive deeper. Why are they unable to engage?
I propose that they simply lack the time to engage with politics. Time is arguably the most important resource for people, whether in the context of voting or otherwise. Since elections in the United States take place on weekdays, in person voters often have to take time off from their jobs to vote. For low income individuals, the opportunity cost of taking off time from work is very high since they are more likely being paid by the hour. On the other hand, people with higher incomes are often paid by salary and are provided with benefits, including sick days. These people can use one of their paid sick days to take time aside to vote. However, for low income individuals who are often living paycheck to paycheck, every dollar counts. They simply cannot afford to take a day off. Some states have started to address this issue. 13 states now give their employees Election Day off. Clearly, governments recognize making election day a holiday is beneficial for voter turnout or else they would not have instituted the policy in the first place.
President Biden seems to agree with these 13 states since last month he released the Executive Order on Promoting Access to Voting in which he wishes to implement, “strategies to expand the Federal Government’s policy of granting employees time off to vote in Federal, State, local, Tribal, and territorial elections”. The idea of guaranteeing workers time off from their jobs to vote is not far-fetched and it could potentially help the individuals who need it the most.
With this executive order, Biden is sending a clear message to his observers and fellow politicians; He is willing to take unilateral action to expand access to voting. Executive orders are unique in that they are not subject to congressional approval, so Biden can be as decisive as he chooses. His executive order also functions to bring up voting access onto the political agenda. Since people who are unable to vote cannot express their preferences and views, their views are not even included on the political agenda. According to Bartels in his novel entitled, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, “elected officials and public policy are largely unresponsive to the policy preferences of millions of low-income citizens, leaving their political interests to be served or ignored as the ideological whims of incumbent elites may dictate.” Although in some ways Biden is the epitome of the political elite he is nevertheless trying to appeal to the policy preferences of low income citizens in the best way possible. It is one thing to try and enact the will of the people through an exercise of one’s own political power. It is another thing entirely to use your political power to help expand other people’s access to the political system. Biden in this regard is setting the example for other elected officials.
Fixing the underlying issue of income inequality is very difficult to accomplish. Furthermore, policy aimed at reducing this inequality even if clearly thought out, would be difficult to pass in our current Congress. Indeed, introducing or expanding welfare programs would help income inequality by addressing the root of the problem. However, the Republican Party has always argued in favor of more conservative government spending and have actively worked to scale back welfare and benefits, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Overhauling the welfare state to reduce inequality with the aim of increasing electoral participation could work but is something that has a greater time horizon. Right now, Biden and the Democrats need to capitalize on the focus regarding voting to pass legislation that creates a more equitable voting system by expanding voter access.
Voting and voting access is not a partisan issue, even though it has artificially been made into one. The continued concentration of political power in those of higher income may not concern broad swaths of America right now. But with the rising tide of inequality, even those of us who feel economically secure should feel worried. Money should not be the prerequisite for political participation. These trends seem to be pushing America away from democracy and towards oligarchy, where the power is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy.