By Kirk Clay
Have we spent too many years overlooking the real challenges of our economy? Are there still too many of us living from paycheck to paycheck? After years of cautious and prudent federal spending, the economy is finally turning the corner yet many of America’s families are more financially insecure now than their upper income counterparts.
Yes the federal debt has decreased significantly and many of us are beginning to recover from the great recession. However a recent Pew Poll demonstrates that we are also experiencing wealth inequality. We now see a gulf of financial experiences developing between upper income and lower income Americans. Moreover, the enormous difference in net worth for White, Black, and Latino households is becoming a bellwether for income inequality. What’s shocking is that the impact of this financial insecurity is felt in white working class families as well as lower income families of color. As demonstrated in a recent Pew Poll:
- People of Color and women make up over 61% of the financially insecure community — about 48% are white non-Hispanic.
- Unmarried women represent over 42% of the community.
- Just under 53% of this community is unemployed — 20% employed part-time.
Today, there are many efforts underway aimed at addressing important issues that impact financially insecure communities–minimum wage, access to quality education, housing, healthcare, and food security. Ironically, in order to participate in these transactional experiences an individual needs to have a sense of financial security. This leaves “good” hard work people living on the margins of society and grasping for a ladder of hope and opportunity. It’s hard to take advantage of efforts centered on livable wages, access to education and housing when you don’t have bus fare or even worse the buses are not operating in your community.
This leads me to ponder about the old adage– “abandoned voters disengage.” How does this dynamic play out in their lives? What impact does it have on our democracy, in particular civic engagement where regardless of one’s zip code and bank account each citizen has a vote. What is the correlation between income inequality and voting—one of the most powerful ways to have impact?
The midterm elections are a good place find answers. Wealthier, older men who are less racially diverse make up a large portion of the midterm electorate. For example, in the 2014 midterm, only 20% of the least financially secure citizens voted. Here are additional data points to consider:
- Last year, over 93% of the financially well-off community said they were registered to vote – compared to less than 55% of the least financially secure.
- Less than 31% of the least financially secure cast a ballot in the 2010 midterm elections – compared to more than 68% of the financially well-off.
- Over 33% of the least financially secure community articulated “no choice” in candidates regardless of party affiliation – a clear sign of apathy.
We all know that democracy works best when everyone has a voice and their values are represented. After all, most voters support candidates that reflect their interests. The problem for our democracy is that candidates inclined to create policies that “promote and enforce giving everyone a fair shot” will not have a fair shot if their voters stay home on Election Day. This creates an unbalanced political system that gives the financially “well-off” an unfair advantage over financially insecure Americans.
I believe we are in the midst of a watershed moment. There are many organizations working hard to build social, political, and financial capital for people living at or below the poverty line. Although they have enormous challenges to face in upcoming years they must do more to help our neighbors engage. As the next decade approaches, it’s important to keep in mind that our ultimate objective should be to create a nation where everyone in need of assistance receives it and leads a life of respect, dignity and opportunity. Let’s try to alleviate poverty in America.
Kirk Clay, Senior Advisor