Finally, as Weaver’s circumstances illustrate, poverty is not necessarily a permanent state. People fall in and climb out of it. Americans are particularly reluctant to describe themselves as working class, let alone poor.
A Pew survey in 2008 revealed that 91 percent believe they are either middle class, upper-middle class or lower-middle class. Relatively few claim to be working class or upper class, intimating more of a cultural aspiration than an economic relationship. Amy Pezzani, the executive director of the Larimer County Food Bank in Colorado, explained that politicians are reluctant to refer to “the poor” and “poverty” because it turns low-income voters off.
“People who find themselves in these situations don’t want to consider themselves poor. They’re more likely to refer to themselves as the ‘struggling middle class.’” he said.
In a report from Minnesota earlier this year the New York Times examined the growing number of people who were simultaneously dependent on US government aid and against more government spending.
“Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it,” it said. “But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age.”
In a country where social mobility is assumed — even if it has in fact stalled — and class consciousness is weak, the poor may vote in the interests of an imagined, but not necessarily imaginary future, rather than on solidarity based born of shared economic hardships.
A Gallup poll in 2005 showed that while only 2 percent of Americans described themselves as “rich,” 31 percent thought it very likely or somewhat likely they would “ever be rich.” No doubt that figure will have dropped since the crisis, but it doubtless remains high.
The US’ politics are so polarized that a recent poll from the Pew research center revealed that people’s views on their financial situation are shaped by their partisan affiliation rather than the other way around. The survey showed 55 percent of Republicans say their household finances are in worse shape than in December 2007, compared with only 40 percent of Democrats, even if Republicans feel they are faring better financially than Democrats.
“People bring their own views of the president and partisan identification to these questions,” Pew’s Kim Parker told the Financial Times.
The truly shocking thing about income and voting patterns in the US is not the number of poor people who vote Republican, but the number who do not vote at all. Inequality in income is intimately related to inequality in turnout. In 2008, 41 percent of voters who earn less than US$10,000 voted, compared with 78 percent among those who earn more than US$150,000. One can only assume that many poor people do not feel they have anyone to vote for.
Shortly before the 2004 election, I met Cynthia Huntington in Maine. She was 60 then and had a hernia, no health insurance and was in extreme discomfort. She was in two minds as to whether to vote Democrat (Maine could have been a swing state at the time) or for third party candidate Ralph Nader.