Why Are the Poor and Minorities Less Likely to Vote?

Even when America's underclass isn't formally stripped of its ballot, a slew of barriers come between them and full representation and participation.

Check-cashing stores and dilapidated storefronts dot Route 3 in Cincinnati. (Daniel Weeks)

CINCINNATI — It's 4 a.m. when the overnight bus from Pittsburgh rolls into Cincinnati station. With hours to go until daylight and more than a little fatigued, I join the small crowd of passengers sprawled out on the floor in one corner of the station. A pair of infomercials is playing on endless loop on the TVs overhead and I can only dream of falling asleep. An hour later, I stop trying and make my usual cup of gruel before setting off on foot through the drizzle into town—the wrong part of town, as it happens.

Heading out past the casino and north on Gilbert Avenue, I see office parks and museums give way to blocks of rundown rowhouses with broken windows and ground floors boarded up. There are seedy strip malls, vacant overgrown lots, and once-proud red-brick factories with faded marble molding and "For Sale" signs on the door. Trash has gone uncollected for some time, judging by the overflowing bins.

Few storefronts remain in business—a convenience store here, check casher there, and beauty supplier and furniture store further down. The Speedy Refund tax service silently awaits another tax season, when eager EITC filers will pack the place seeking "Cash Back Fast" (for a fee). Across the street, the Life Skills center promises "Help with dreams—Enrolling Now!" in the form of a GED. A dilapidated stone church next door is fenced off with fluorescent "No Trespassing" signs posted all around. At another former church nearby, all that remains is a crumbling steeple proclaiming the Father's glory. Strangest of all, on this average weekday morning there is hardly another soul in sight.

Continuing out along Route 3, I notice the scene begin to change. No longer are the streets and sidewalks busted up, the homes unoccupied or in disrepair. As I turn into a leafy lane, I come across a battery of dump trucks and heavy machinery laying down a new layer of fresh tar. Judging by the amount of men and machines assigned, it looks as if the job will be complete in time for lunch, leaving ample time to dry before the residents return from work. Sprawling, manicured lawns and curvaceous drives lead up to lavish homes with porticos and chimneys all around. One is a castle made of stone with turrets and lattice windows.

Back in town at midday, I wander into the Lord's Pantry soup kitchen and am offered the daily fare of "sandwiches, drinks, and prayer" along with a few dozen of the city's down-and-out. I gratefully accept all three in exchange for a small donation. Returning to the streets after lunch, I decide to pay a visit to the nearby Contact Center, a community nonprofit. Although I don't know a thing about the place, a flyer in the window headlined "Janitors for Justice" catches my eye by announcing that 48 percent of Cincinnati children are living in poverty—hardly the thing I was expecting to find in this venerable old city of Proctor & Gamble fame. A subsequent check with the Census Bureau confirms the unhappy fact.

Inside the dimply-lit office, I am greeted by Cassandra, a middle-aged black woman with braids and a melancholy aspect, who manages the Contact Center's outreach to families in need. She agrees to my impromptu request for an interview and shows me to a table piled high with handmade Christmas ornaments—to help pay the bills. "I'll Be There" by the Jackson 5 is playing softly in the background.

Cassandra's preparation for running an assistance center in Cincinnati was her own experience as a "welfare mom." (Daniel Weeks)

As we take our seats, Cassandra shares her primary credential for the job: She was once on welfare—a picture-perfect "welfare mom" according to the stereotype, single with seven children. But the welfare she knew did not meet the hype, she says: There was no Cadillac, no name-brand clothes, no fancy meals or other special things. There was the bus to get to work and school; thrift-store clothing for the kids twice a year; food to eat and a roof over their heads, most of the time. "I didn't want to be there, because the money that you get is not enough to take care of you, pay rent, gas and electric, telephone," she explains. "At the end of the month the money's gone, you've got to rely on soup kitchens and stuff like that. You can only stretch the dollar so far."

When welfare reform was passed in 1996, she says she started attending public meetings where men and women in suits would talk about how "those people are lazy, those people won't work." That's when she realized they were talking about her. She says she wondered if they had any idea that she had enrolled in job programs one after another; had seen her kids through public schools and into gainful employment; had applied for more jobs than she can remember and been turned away. "I even tried to work in a sandwich factory," she says. "I make sandwiches all the time at home, but I couldn't get the job!"

It didn't take long for her to realize that the politicians knew very little about how she and her neighbors lived, about the level of opportunity they did and did not enjoy. Making matters worse, she says, most of them didn't seem to care. "Folks that are on welfare, the [politicians] look down on us," she says.

True to President Clinton's promise to "end welfare as we know it," welfare rolls were slashed in Cincinnati and across the United States—down from 12.3 million in 1996 to around 4 million today, or 1.3 percent of the population. The amount of cash assistance available to needy families also shrank to a maximum benefit of $428 per month for a family of three in the median state, less than half the poverty line. In a handful of southern states, just one in 10 poor families with children currently receives welfare and the level of assistance is less than 15 percent of the poverty line.

Cassandra grants that getting more folks off welfare and into work was a good idea—if only jobs could be found. After showing steady gains during the economic boom years of the late 1990s, the share of single mothers in the workforce started to decline again to 54 percent, for a net gain of just five percent between 1995 and 2009. Meanwhile, around half of those who have found jobs since leaving welfare still cannot escape the poverty trap, and one in three continues to live in deep poverty with earnings below $11,500 a year for a family of four. The rise in deep poverty, especially among children, to 20.5 million people in 2012—the highest rate and number since record-keeping began in 1975—is considered a consequence by scholars.

Cassandra says the combination of welfare cuts, insufficient jobs, and a lack of other in-kind supports for single parents to find and keep what low-wage jobs there are has left a lot of people, like herself, in the lurch. At the beginning of welfare reform, she says, advocates in Cincinnati tried to convey to state officials what it would take to move people off the rolls and into gainful employment for the long-term. "We pointed out what needed to happen: childcare, transportation, education … Without those things how are we gonna get a decent job to make a decent living?" But, she says, many of the promised investments still have not come through—leaving food stamps as the only reliable source of government support for millions of people in need. Citing the latest round of budget cuts in Washington, she worries that even food stamps will decline. "They're taking that safety net away from us."

When I ask Cassandra why she sees problems like these persisting over time, she turns immediately to politics and the democratic process. Money and social status is how you make yourself heard, she says, but people below or near the poverty line have neither. "We're not equal citizens."

Unlike the legal disenfranchisement of immigrants and former felons and residents of Washington, D.C. and the territories, the concerns Cassandra has in mind do not involve formal restrictions at all. Most of the impoverished people she knows possess the right to vote. Instead, when Cassandra talks of "unequal citizenship" for people like her, she is referring to the inability of low-income people generally to put the rights they have to good effect. If nothing else, she says, her years of community organizing at the Contact Center have opened her eyes to the many practical hurdles that keep poor people from having their voices heard in politics.

For starters, low-income citizens are far less likely to vote. According to the U.S. Census, 47 percent of eligible adults with family incomes of less than $20,000 a year voted in 2012 and just one in four voted in the midterm election of 2010. By contrast, those with annual earnings of $100,000 or more turned out at rates of around 80 percent and 60 percent, respectively. Similar disparities are seen in voter registration. When non-citizens and incarcerated persons are included in the count, the gap in voting and registration across income groups is wider still.

U.S. Citizenship, Registration, and Voter Turnout by Family Income, 2008-2012
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Analysis of survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2012 Current Population Survey.

A close examination of the reasons non-voters give for staying home—especially those lower down the socioeconomic ladder—suggests that a slew of practical barriers continue to stand in the way of full and equal exercise of the franchise. According to a Caltech/MIT survey of both registered and unregistered eligible voters who did not cast a ballot in 2008, disapproval of candidate choices, busyness, illness, transportation, and registration/ administrative problems were the leading causes of non-participation, with considerable variation across groups.

While income and education levels were not recorded in the survey, race and age were major factors influencing who made it to the polls on Election Day and what kind of barriers they faced. Black and Hispanic citizens, for whom the poverty rate is close to three times that of whites, were three times as likely as whites to not have the requisite I.D. and to have difficulty finding the correct polling place. They were more than three times as likely as whites to not receive a requested absentee ballots, and roughly twice as likely to be out of town on Election Day or to have to wait in long lines. They were also substantially more likely than whites to report transportation problems and bad time and location as reasons for not getting to the polls, while white voters were the most likely to cite disapproval of candidate choices. Taken together, the surveys suggest that white citizens who abstain from voting do so primarily by choice, while the majority of minority non-voters face problems along the way.

Reasons for Not Voting by Eligible Citizens, 2008

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Analysis of Caltech/MIT "2008 Survey of the Performance of American Elections." Chart includes all reasons surveyed except those for which all group responses were less than 25 percent (bad weather, forgot); substantially similar reasons are collapsed into a single category and averaged.

How do these data translate into actual votes? The Caltech/MIT survey estimates that between 910,000 and 3 million votes were lost due to registration problems in 2008, a modest improvement over the year 2000, when between 1.5 million and 3 million votes were lost for the same reason. Another 1.8 million voters experienced equipment problems at the polls, making the total number of registered voters who were prevented from voting in 2008 greater than the margin of victory in the national popular vote in the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. What's more, an estimated 1.5 million voters found their polling place poorly run and 1 million reported feeling intimidated at the polls—small but not insignificant percentages. African-American and Hispanic voters were considerably more likely than white voters to be asked to show photo identification at the polls, at rates of 70 percent, 65 percent, and 51 percent, respectively.

Then there are the lines. Nearly 40 percent of voters reported waiting in line on Election Day 2012 and 17 percent reported waits of 30 minutes or more—primarily people of color in urban areas and the state of Florida. Black and Hispanic voters waited an average of more than 20 minutes to vote, almost twice as long as whites. In larger, urban counties with populations exceeding 150,000 voters, the average wait was almost 20 minutes, more than double the time in counties with 50,000 voters or less. Young voters also experienced significantly longer wait times, and other Election Day hurdles, than their older counterparts. Finally, in Florida, voters waited an average of 45 minutes. An estimated 200,000 Florida voters "gave up in frustration" before they could cast a ballot in 2012. Overall, nearly one in 10 Americans reported that they or someone they knew tried to vote but was not able to in 2012, and close to half of eligible Americans who did not cast a ballot cited external administrative barriers as the major cause.

Election hurdles aside, Cassandra is quick to point out that voting is not the only form of participation practiced in American politics, and it is arguably not the most impactful either. Volunteering for political causes and campaigns, contributing money to candidates, and lobbying the government all have an effect. And here, a mounting body of social science research examined for this study supports Cassandra's hypothesis that "low-income people lack funding to effectively advocate" for their needs and are under-represented as a result.

Political Participation Rates by Socioeconomic Status, 2008
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Analysis of 2008 Pew Internet and American Life Survey, reproduced from Schlozman et al., The Unheavenly Chorus, Princeton University Press, 2012, p. 124. Socioeconomic status determined by ranking U.S. population by income and education levels and dividing into five equal groups.

For example, just two percent of Americans at the bottom of the income and education ladder attend campaign meetings and rallies or conduct campaign work, compared to 14 percent of people at the top—a factor of seven to one. When it comes to selecting candidates and funding their campaigns, two percent of all Americans give money in presidential elections and less than half of one percent provide the lion's share. In fact, the largest single donor in 2012 personally accounted for more money than the bottom 98 percent of citizens combined. As Cassandra puts it, "Whoever can buy the most TV time, whoever talks at them the right way" usually gets the votes—and the money to fund campaigns isn't coming from people like her. Finally, of the more than 12,000 interests groups actively lobbying Washington, only a few dozen—less than 1 percent—advocate directly on behalf of low-income people. With annual expenditures of around $1 million, they are outspent by business by a factor of 3,000 to one.

Concentration of Individual Contributors to Federal Elections, 2012
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Analysis of 2012 data from the Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org)

As the authors of a recent 700-page study conclude, "Year after year, decade after decade, and from one generation to the next, the affluent and well educated have participatory megaphones that amplify their voices in American politics ... [and] shape what politicians hear about political needs, concerns, and preferences." The result, according to another academic, is that poor and near-poor citizens exert "no discernible impact on the behavior of their elected representatives."

Cassandra has no intention of going unheard. Spending an afternoon with her, it's hard to imagine anything getting between her and the ballot box. In fact, she even brings a group of low-income citizens to the state capitol in Columbus once or twice a year so legislators can "hear what people have to say." But speaking isn't the same thing as being heard, she concedes. For one thing, many of the people whom she is trying to empower "feel intimidated by the way the legislators talk to them [or] get scared off." For another, lobbying government costs money she doesn't have. "Our biggest problem is getting money to be able to continue doing the work that we do," she says.

Ultimately, Cassandra says, "Our communities and families are losing because of [what's happening] in Washington, D.C."

* * *

This it the conclusion of a week-long series exploring the intersection of poverty and democracy in America. Read the rest of the series:

Poverty vs. Democracy in America: 50 years after Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, tens of millions of second-class Americans are still legally or effectively disenfranchised. 

Should Felons Lose the Right to Vote? The poor and minorities are disproportionately locked up—and as a result, disproportionately banned from the polls.

Immigrant Voting: Not a Crazy Idea: Until the 1920s, many states and territories allowed non-citizens to cast ballots. Given their role in American society, it's worth reconsidering the practice. 

Second-Class Citizens: How D.C. and Puerto Rico Lose Out on Democracy: Is there a connection between deprivation and a lack of federal representation? The people in territories without a vote sure think so.

Why Are the Poor and Minorities Less Likely to Vote? Even when America's underclass isn't formally stripped of its ballot, a slew of barriers come between them and full representation and participation.