Income Inequality Keeps Poorer Americans Away from the Polls

Income Inequality Keeps Poorer Americans Away from the Polls

Income Inequality Keeps Poorer Americans Away from the Polls

Those who most need their voices heard are less likely to vote.


It’s no secret that money and politics enjoy a nasty love affair in this country. And as Ari Berman has written here, the problem has gotten even worse this cycle after the ill-fated Citizens United decision unleashed the power of Super PACs. As he reports, campaigns are increasingly reliant on that money, yet “Super PACs on both sides of the aisle are financed by the 1 percent of the 1 percent.” That means the rich have an even more outsized impact on the outcome of the election.

At the same time, it’s been hard to miss the GOP’s relentless campaign to roll back voting rights in the name of eliminating the (mostly imaginary) threat of fraud. Many of those tactics will severely affect  low-income voters and likely suppress their turnout in November, handing even more power over to the 1 percent. 

There’s something else that suppresses their vote, however, even if they are legally able to do so. And that something is income inequality, as a new report from the OECD on the Better Life Index shows. Of the thirty-four countries included in the report, the US ranks second to last in social inequality, bested only by South Korea. When it comes to income inequality we are at the extreme end of the scale, with levels similar to those of Cameroon, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Ecuador, Nepal and Uganda.

This has a huge impact on voter turnout. Across all OECD countries, individual income has an effect on whether citizens show up at the polls, with an average 7 percent jump for those who are in the top 20 percent versus those in the bottom 20 percent. Things are far, far worse here at home, though. Those whose income is in the top 20 percent experience a near 100 percent turnout rate, making full use of their right to vote. But the rate for those in the bottom group is less than three-quarters. That makes for a whopping 28 percent gap between the two on election day, which again seems only to be beaten by South Korea. On top of this, those with more education—also often tied to income—are more likely to vote than less educated people, likely augmenting the phenomenon.

This may be a sign that low-income voters feel disconnected from our politics. As the report notes, “Voter participation is the best existing means of measuring civic and political engagement.” In a world where mega-rich donors rule the system and at least one party is determined to make it harder to exercise this constitutional right, it makes sense that one might feel discouraged. 

But this is clearly one more way in which America’s sky-high level of income inequality is a self-reinforcing phenomenon. When a Congress elected by the wealthy debates issues that affect the poor, it should be little wonder that budget cuts that disproportionately fall on the latter are passed while programs that would help them out are not. Just take a look at news out today that Congress is prematurely pulling back on benefits for the long-term unemployed, despite the fact that over 5 million people have been jobless for longer than six months.

While the Great Recession certainly exacerbated income inequality, it was a trend thirty years in the making. The gap between the after-tax income of the richest 1 percent of Americans and the 99 percent more than tripled over the last three decades. And there’s no sign that the trend is going to do anything but continue on. As the gulf between the rich and the poor continues to expand, expect voter turnout among those who are most affected to fall into the void.

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