Lylian Davis stood outside her mobile home, squinted at the sun and considered the presidential election.
“Yeah, I’m going to vote. For whom, I’m undecided.” Among her neighbors in Landfall, a tiny St. Paul suburb of mobile homes where 1 in 5 of about 700 residents lives in poverty, Davis thinks she’s unusual.
” ‘ Oh, my vote doesn’t count.’ That’s all I hear around here.” Davis said.
Nationwide, low-income Americans vote at much lower rate than wealthier citizens. According to a 1990 survey published by Harvard University Press, almost 9 out of 10 individuals in families with incomes over $75,000 reported voting in presidential elections while only half of those in families with incomes under $15,000 reported voting.
Without casting their votes, poor people’s influence on lawmakers is limited. In 2004, a task force of the American Political Science Association warned that this inequality threatens the basis of American democracy.
“Citizens with lower incomes speak with a whisper that is lost on the ears of inattentive government officials, while the advantaged roar with clarity and consistency that policy makers readily hear and routinely follow,” wrote the blue-ribbon panel of political scientists.
In interviews in low-income communities in the Twin Cities, residents say they feel politicians often ignore issues like the foreclosure crisis, underperforming schools, an aging infrastructure and meager job opportunities.
“It’s more of a problem than people higher up even realize,” Davis said while standing outside her home. “If they could live how these people live, for even a week, I think they would change their mind on some issues. But they live so high up that it’s not real to them. All they know is the taxes come, people work. It’s a whole other world to them.”
One issue that worries Davis’s neighbor, Judy Johnson, is taxes. “I don’t know anybody that has enough money to meet the ends every month around here.”
Why don’t half of poor people vote? Increasing economic inequality may dissuade many, the task force of political scientists concluded. They also cited laws that forbid many former and current prisoners from voting.
That’s a big issue in places like North Minneapolis, according to Don Samuels, who represents the area on the Minneapolis City Council. “You have people that were incarcerated, or they don’t know if they can vote,” he said. “People who are disenfranchised from voting for many years no longer consider it as an activity to participate in.”
Samuels recalls one neighbor telling him why she doesn’t vote: “They know what we need. If they wanted to do the right thing they would have done it.”
That woman and other poor people believe political leaders have a moral responsibility to help the poor, Samuels says. In their view, “There’s a moral deficiency in leadership that makes them not respond to the moral imperatives of the community.”
That view may be politically naïve, Samuels says, but it makes sense in moral terms.
Fr. John Estrem, the chief executive officer of Catholic Charities, one of the Twin Cities’ largest private providers of social services, notes that demand for its services has increased as the economy has weakened. He recently decided to keep open the Dorothy Day Center, which feeds 300 homeless men and women every day in downtown St. Paul, during the Republican National Convention in September.
Asked why many low-income people don’t vote, Estrem said they may feel that people in decision-making positions don’t listen to them. Moreover, poor people move more frequently to look for work or because of they lack affordable housing. They may not know the location of their polling places or know how to register, he said. To encourage its clients to vote, Catholic Charities will hold voter registration at some of its 42 sites this fall.
“In our society, the voice of the poor often goes unheard,” Estrem said. “Those who cry out the least often take the biggest hit.”
On one recent day, four men sipping beer under a tree near the Dorothy Day Center talked about the election. Three men — Greg, Steve, and Philip – are middle-aged veterans. The other man, who wears a worn, brown sweatshirt, is an 80-year-old Canadian who gives his name as Fyniche.
“I would like to see [Barack] Obama,” Steve said. “I would like to see change.” Greg, a Republican, feels that “It’s lookin’ pretty bad” for his party.” He’s leaning towards Obama.
None of the men blames politicians for their hard times. “It’s my choice, it’s my lifestyle,” Greg explained.
According to the political scientists’ report, both the Democratic and Republican parties prefer to focus their campaign resources on their active followers and put more money into these groups, rather than begin to mobilize disengaged citizens to vote.
But there are many low-income people who feel passionately about the upcoming presidential election. Bill Peters, who lives in Mary Hall, a Catholic Charities residence near the Xcel Energy Center, is one.
“I read voraciously. I get up every morning about 4:30, light up a cigarette and just read,” said Peters. He plans to vote in November.