Kids First: Harnessing the power of poor and low-income people

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There were 140 million poor and low-income Americans prior to pandemic 2020; a number that is sure to rise without ongoing federal support for the unemployed.

A family income of $26,200 is considered poverty level and $50,000 qualifies as “very low-income” on Long Island, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Despite the risks to health and economic well-being that these Americans face, in presidential elections the number of low-income-voters is significantly below that of higher-income voters, according to the Poor People’s Campaign.

The Poor People’s Campaign is a movement that dates back to 1968 and has declared in 2020, “we will demonstrate the power of poor people to be agents of change in not just one election, but at the very heart of this democracy.” One of their principle objectives is to register poor and low-income people to vote.

Why didn’t low-income people vote in greater numbers in 2016? One of the top reasons was that they did not have faith that their vote would make any difference. How demoralizing to feel that your vote is meaningless.

Pushing back, the Poor People’s Campaign asks: “How would the political landscape change if the needs and demands of poor and low-income voters were better represented in the electoral process?”

In a new report by Robert Paul Hartley of Columbia University entitled, “Unleashing the Power of Poor and Low-Income Americans,” he attempted to answer that question and show the potential voting power of low-income Americans.

Following are just a few of the key findings:

• In the 2016 presidential election, there were 138 million voters out of 225 million eligible voters. 29 million of these voters were poor or low-income and there were an additional 34 million poor or low-income people who were eligible, but who did not vote.
• Low-income people vote about 20 percentage points lower than higher income voters.
• The issues that matter most to low-income people and impact on their ability to vote are health and economic well-being, Illness, disability and transportation.
• If low-income voters participated at similar rates as higher income voters, and voted against the winning party, there are 15 states where new low-income voters could flip the results from the 2016 presidential elections.

While low-income voters are less likely to cast a ballot, what Hartley’s study shows is that in a number of key states, if low income voting had matched the voting rates of the rest of the population in recent elections, those votes would equal or surpass recent election margins of victory.

To be clear, low-income voters are by no means of a single mind in their political leanings – they don’t all vote in the same way.

What we do know, however, is that there is common ground in why people do not vote, most notably because candidates or campaigns don’t speak to their needs, don’t energize them.

As we are learning every day now, we cannot afford to take our democracy for granted. We must fight for it or we will be sure to lose it.

Voter suppression, restricting voting access and gerrymandering – manipulating district boundaries for unfair political party advantage, are as much realities in 2020 as they were in 1950.

Fighting for our democracy means we must all find a way to participate, we must all have a plan to vote, regardless of our economic status.

For underrepresented lower income folks, as well as students and other young people, this means building a culture of voting, one ballot at a time. Throwing up one’s hands dismissively and declaring that “my vote doesn’t count” leaves you voiceless.

Your vote – your voice. By voting your conscience you take a bold step forward by asserting – “I don’t consent to the way I am being represented.”

Voting is a right that has been treated solely as a privilege for far too long. In fact, the right that appears most often in the text of our Constitution is the right to vote.
Take the first step to preserving our democracy this November 3rd – VOTE.

Andrew Malekoff lives in Long Beach, New York. He is a licensed clinical social worker and editor-in-chief of the professional journal Social Work with Groups. To read the full study “Unleashing the Power of Poor and Low-Income Americans,” go to: https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/resource/power-of-poor-voters/

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