Lower-income Americans continue to be divided politically, despite their shared interests

A voting location
File photo of a voting location from Wikimedia Commons by Tom Arthur.

Six in 10 lower-income Americans describe the economy as fair or poor, according to a survey out from Pew Research Center last month.

Majorities of upper-income and middle-income Americans say current economic conditions are excellent or good, the research showed.

This seems obvious — people who are better off feel better about how well the economy is doing. Nevertheless, as partisan as views of the economy have become, what’s notable is that the gap between how the economy is viewed by people of different income levels persists between party groups.

“In fact, lower-income Republicans are roughly four times as likely as those in the upper-income tier to give the economy an only fair or poor rating,” Pew reported.

Folks living paycheck-to-paycheck feel the crush every day, and no political rhetoric or statistics change that reality for them. They generally don’t give a damn about the NASDAQ or the Dow. They’re focused on trying to pay the bills, and they know whether they can afford to do so, no matter what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says.

The public also has some strong agreement, regardless of party, on whom the economy is helping.

“To the extent that current economic conditions are helping particular groups, the public sees the benefits flowing mainly to the most well-off. Roughly seven-in-ten adults (69%) say today’s economy is helping people who are wealthy (only 10% say the wealthy are being hurt),” Pew said. “At the same time, majorities of Americans say poor people, those without a college degree, older adults, younger adults and the middle class are being hurt rather than helped by current economic conditions.”

Among lower-income Americans, similar shares of Republicans (62%) and Democrats (63%) say the current economy is helping the wealthy, according to Pew.

“When asked how economic conditions are affecting them and their families, nearly half of adults (46%) say they are being hurt, 31% say they’re being helped and 22% say they don’t see much of an impact,” the report summary said.

Once upon a yesteryear, the performance of the economy as viewed by people of different income levels had at least some political impact.

As lower-income people struggled with their lower incomes, some bounced back and forth between the parties, mostly voting for “change” in the hope that the party next in power would alleviate their struggles.

Ohio Public Radio’s Karen Kasler recently spoke with two elections statistics experts about some of these issues.

Mike Dawson, who runs the website ohioelectionresults.com, told Kasler, “It used to be those counties in Appalachian Ohio switched repeatedly because their economic lot in life was not improving. So they want to give the new person a chance.

“They are not switching back and forth. Now they’re staying solidly Republican and even becoming more Republican, so I’m not sure the economy is going to have as big an impact in this next election as it has in the past.”

Kyle Kondik, an Ohio native who now edits the political website Sabato’s Crystal Ball from the University of Virginia, agreed, Kasler reported.

“People are voting more on kind of these big cultural issues: same sex marriage, abortion rights and then kind of harder to quantify kind of cultural issues like whether Colin Kaepernick kneels during the Pledge of Allegiance during an NFL game — you know, issues of sort of patriotism and national identity,” Kondik said.

With regard to those cultural issues, a new dynamic is at play. While Republicans seem to be shoring up votes in rural areas on cultural issues despite continuing economic hardships, their hard line reactionary stances on things like equal rights, access to abortion and gun violence prevention are turning off educated women in suburbia.

Ohio Democrats saw most of their gains in the Statehouse in 2018 come in these suburban areas that have traditionally been Republican strongholds. Suburban Ohio is shaping up to be the big battleground in 2020, too.

How all of this shakes out as we charge toward Nov. 3, 2020 is anybody’s guess. We don’t know what the economy will look like in October. We don’t know Republicans’ ceiling in rural Ohio, and we don’t know Democrats’ ceiling in suburban Ohio.

What we do know is that political polarization is motivating low-income voters beyond their personal economic situations, even if they understand, regardless of party, that they aren’t doing so hot and that the economy is designed to help the wealthy, not them. 

Sadly though, this game is nothing new. Using social wedge issues to divide lower-income people so that they go to the polls and solemnly vote against their own economic interests is about as old as politics itself.

David C. DeWitt
David C. DeWitt is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years experience covering Ohio politics and policy. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS and Plunderbund.com covering topics such as education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, government, business, labor, energy, environment and social issues. His work has also appeared in Government Executive, the Columbus Dispatch, Girlfriends magazine, Bleacher Report and the Ashtabula Star Beacon, among others.