It is one of the central political puzzles of our time: Parts of the country that depend on the safety-net programs supported by Democrats are increasingly voting for Republicans who favor shredding that net.
It’s enough to give Democrats the willies as they contemplate a map where the red keeps seeping outward, confining them to ever narrower redoubts of blue. The temptation for coastal liberals is to shake their heads over those godforsaken white-working-class provincials who are voting against their own interests.
But this reaction misses the complexity of the political dynamic that’s taken hold in these parts of the country. It misdiagnoses the Democratic Party’s growing conundrum with working-class white voters. And it also keeps us from fully grasping what’s going on in communities where conditions have deteriorated to the point where researchers have detected alarming trends in their mortality rates.
That pattern is right in line with surveys, which show a decades-long decline in support for redistributive policies and an increase in conservatism in the electorate even as inequality worsens. There has been a particularly sharp drop in support for redistribution among older Americans, who perhaps see it as a threat to their own Social Security and Medicare. Meanwhile, researchers such as Kathryn Edin, of Johns Hopkins University, have pinpointed a tendency by Americans in the second lowest quintile of the income ladder — the working or lower-middle class — to dissociate themselves from those at the bottom, where many once resided. “There’s this virulent social distancing — suddenly, you’re a worker and anyone who is not a worker is a bad person,” said Edin. “They’re playing to the middle fifth and saying, ‘I’m not those people.’ ”
Meanwhile, many people who in fact most use and need social benefits are simply not voting at all. Voter participation is low among the poorest Americans, and in many parts of the country that have moved red, the rates have fallen off the charts. West Virginia ranked 50th for turnout in 2012; also in the bottom 10 were other states that have shifted sharply red in recent years, including Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee.
This political disconnect among lower-income Americans has huge ramifications — polls find nonvoters are far more likely to favor spending on the poor and on government services than are voters, and the gap grows even larger among poor nonvoters. In the early 1990s, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky freely cited the desirability of having a more select electorate when he opposed an effort to expand voter registration. And this fall, Scott Jennings, a longtime McConnell adviser, reportedly said low turnout by poor Kentuckians explained why the state’s Obamacare gains wouldn’t help Democrats. “I remember being in the room when Jennings was asked whether or not Republicans were afraid of the electoral consequences of displacing 400,000–500,000 people who have insurance,” State Auditor Adam Edelen, a Democrat who lost his re-election bid this year, told Joe Sonka, a Louisville journalist. “And he simply said, ‘People on Medicaid don’t vote.’ ”
Republicans would argue that the shift in their direction among voters slightly higher up the ladder is the natural progression of things — people recognize that government programs are prolonging the economic doldrums and that Republicans have a better economic program.
So where does this leave Democrats and anyone seeking to expand and build lasting support for safety-net programs such as Obamacare?
For starters, it means redoubling efforts to mobilize the people who benefit from the programs. This is no easy task with the rural poor, who are much more geographically scattered than their urban counterparts. Not helping matters in this regard is the decline of local institutions like labor unions — while the United Mine Workers of America once drove turnout in coal country, today there is not a single unionized mine still operating in Kentucky.
But it also means reckoning with the other half of the dynamic — finding ways to reduce the resentment that those slightly higher on the income ladder feel toward dependency in their midst. One way to do this is to make sure the programs are as tightly administered as possible. Instances of fraud and abuse are far rarer than welfare opponents would have one believe, but it only takes a few glaring instances to create a lasting impression. Edin, the Hopkins researcher, suggests going further and making it easier for those collecting disability to do part-time work over the table, not just to make them seem less shiftless in the eyes of their neighbors, but to reduce the recipients’ own sense of social isolation.
The best way to reduce resentment, though, would be to bring about true economic growth in the areas where the use of government benefits is on the rise, the sort of improvement that is now belatedly being discussed for coal country, including on the presidential campaign trail. If fewer people need the safety net to get by, the stigma will fade, and low-income citizens will be more likely to re-engage in their communities — not least by turning out to vote.
(Excerpted from ProPublica 11/20/15)