Let’s start by laying bare some assumptions of mine that should be clear to most readers.
Conservative politicians (often members of the Republican party) have traditionally opposed legislation that seeks to give poor people a hand up. The track record for them is pretty clear. They have tended to fight everything from the expansion of social services such as Medicaid/Medicare, WIC, welfare, and unemployment insurance, to measures designed to lift up the poorest and most oppressed, such as minorities and women. Affirmative action and civil rights legislation, long staples of progressive politics, have been bitterly fought by the Republican party, especially in the South.
That’s not to say that Democrats ALWAYS support expansion of government benefits and protections to the poor, or that Republicans ALWAYS fight them. But as a general rule party lines are sharply drawn around such issues. Despite this fact, apparently there exists a large percentage of poor people who are willing to vote conservative, even if it means voting against their own economic interests. In 2008 McCain won a slim majority (51%) of white Americans who earn less than $50,000. Between 2008 and 2012, even as the the economic situation worsened for many working people, this trend seemed to continue unabated. In a poll conducted by the Washington Post in 2012, 58 % of white voters who admitted to having financial hardship said they would vote for Romney.
Perhaps the optimal word here is WHITE. No doubt the politics of race and racism influence some poor white people to vote against the Democrats, long perceived as the party of minorities, inner city poor, “walfare queens”, and the like. The recent upsurge in the far right, not least of which is illustrated by the Tea Party take over of the Republican party, demonstrates the political depths to which some of the white working class are willing to sink.
The internet is full of stories about poor white men, often Southern, often themselves recipients of government subsides, screaming about how terrible that “socialist” Obama is. In an ironic twist that would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic, there is plenty of data to support that some of the most conservative areas of the country are also the poorest, and contain extremely high numbers of people living on government subsides. In fact, what has been dubbed the “food stamp capital” of the United States is almost entirely white. Owsley County, Kentucky bears that sad distinction. The county is about 99% white, 95% vote Republican, and 96% of the population uses food stamps. Owsely County is ripe with drug use and social problems (as is any ghetto), and many of the recipients of subsides are no doubt unemployable.
However, it is not just the chronically unemployed and unemployable that have come to rely on government subsides to meet the basic needs of life. The safety net was designed to keep the poorest Americans from slipping into abject poverty or homelessness. Sadly, it has become an economic necessity for more and more as the middle class has shrunk. Often these people belong to a layer of working people, formerly middle class, who have been pushed by economic necessity to use government services they themselves often deem shameful, and harbor far right sympathies.
Since 2008 the number of Americans relying on government subsides has been on the increase. This means that people who considered themselves moderately successful, have fallen into economic hardship. As the economy is racked with recurring crisis, more and more traditionally Republican voters are thrown into the ranks of the working poor. Although they continue to harbor conservative ideas about the role of government, they still take advantage of government programs championed by liberals, albeit often with misgivings and a certain amount of shame. The shame and rage they feel about being so poor as to need help from the government, can then be directed toward the “non-deserving” segment of poor people who are perceived to do no work, yet get government hand outs. This creates a psychological defense for their own feelings of inadequacy for having to get on the dole. Republicans are good at harnessing this anger and using it to the party’s benefit. Mit Romney accused Obama in 2012 of “gutting welfare” for the sake of people who refused to work. The message is that we (i.e. white, Southern, and Republican) are more deserving than they are, and thus a little better off.
As should be obvious, the issue of race is a big part of the equation. Since Nixon launched his Southern Strategy the south has been a stronghold for Republicans. White males felt disenfranchised by federally mandated desegregation and the Voting Rights Act, and Nixon leveraged this, along with the Democrats’ War on Poverty, to build Republican strength. Ronald Reagan picked up where Nixon left off by declaring support for “states rights” and getting “Cadillac driving welfare queens” off the state tit. He called a young African-American man a “young buck” lazy and undeserving for using food stamps to buy t-bone steaks. Romney continued the theme by deriding social-security, medicare/medicare, WIC, and the Affordable Care Act. Even though most beneficiaries of these programs are white seniors, retirees, women and children, and white workers, in the coded language of right wing political rhetoric, people who use “government handouts” are lazy or black or both.
As the economic position of working white people declines many continue to cling to these beliefs poor minorities can be used as an effective scapegoat, along with “bloated government programs” to explain why they are doing so badly. The rise of far right rhetoric always grows out of the increasing impoverishment of the middle-class who refuse to identify with authentic working class politics. The media offers explanations to the newly impoverished that include attacks on “immigrants”, poor people, minorities, and the like that seem plausible, especially to the under educated. The shame and rage of being on welfare or food stamps provides physiological energy to a strategy of blaming the other to account for ones own feelings of failure. Bailouts to the large banks and business, corporate welfare, and the obscene budget of the military-industrial complex are conveniently left aside, as minorities and greedy state bureaucrats take the blame.
But, even though poor white people in the South do tend to vote Republican, college educated whites do not, nor do large sections of Northern whites. This is because education tends to produce a more critical view toward politics, and people in the South are less likely to have college degrees. Also, even though many poor whites do vote Republican, many simply do not vote at all. As is the case across the racial spectrum, the poor tend to feel hopeless or apathetic about the possibilities of political solutions making their life any better. And who can blame them? Perhaps another answer to the question posed in the title is “WHY NOT?” The liberal dedication to progressive economics and social justice legislation has been so watered down as to no longer have mass appeal to those who need it most. The Affordable Care Act is the most recent illustration, NAFTA and welfare “reform” under Clinton is another. The Affordable Care Act, although a step in the right direction is not so affordable to millions, who would rather pay the penalty than couple hundred a month in insurance premiums, and it was Clinton who delt a death blow to the unions with NAFTA.
Thus the solution is two fold: First, turn out the vote. It is time that a truly progressive political alternative present itself to the American public, and aggressively go after those forgotten and left behind victims of unchecked capitalism. This must take the form of mass grass roots action centered in poor neighborhoods and barrios across the country, and would utilize direct actions along with mass meetings to inspire people to get organized, get active, and VOTE when the time comes. Second. We need real solutions. The welfare system is clearly broken. The solution is not to give people money but to train them to make money and then provide jobs if the private sector cannot. In so far as the private sector is robust enough to employ people, our politicians should encourage and support labor unions so that those jobs pay a living wage.
This is ultimately the goal of our Full Employment Now campaign. Of course it wont happen overnight, but it CAN happen, and the first step is YOU GETTING INVOLVED. You can do this by signing the petition below and sending me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) letting me know you did so. It’s time to pull together to make America a place we are proud to call home.