Against Their Own Interest:
Why the Rural Poor
Vote Republican

Romney campain sign.

The $250 million man, Mitt Romney, apparently has friends in trailer parks. Once the election has past, will these folks be even a blip on his radar screen?

A recent poll has Romney with a 5 point lead over Obama in Maine’s 2nd District, which encompasses the poorer, less educated, more rural, northern parts of the state.

A CNN poll showed that nationally, in the last midterm election, 41% of those earning below $30,000 voted Republican.

In 2012, the rural vote seems to be trending  strongly toward the Republicans on a nationwide basis.  One recent nonpartisan poll  shows Romney leading Obama 59 percent to 37 percent  among rural voters in battleground states.

How can this be?

How is it that so many of the rural poor cast their votes for Republican candidates who differentiate themselves from their Democratic rivals primarily by their promises to shrink the social safety net and reduce taxes on the rich?

Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? takes on this question, and  returns the answer that conservatives have co-opted the votes of the poor largely by focusing campaigns on hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Conservatives have been very successful at propagating the words that the media and ultimately the public use to talk about issues.  Being a beneficiary of government programs is “dependency.”  Taxes are “job-killers.”  The wealthy are “job creators.”  Any step toward government intervention is “socialism.”  The word “government” itself has been assigned a negative connotation.  The previously accepted citizen duty to pay taxes is an imposition on ones “personal freedom.”  The repetition of these terms, especially in the conservative media, undoubtedly influences how people think — and, unfortunately, the less educated the person, the more compelling the language.

A  factor contributing to the present “unpopularity” of government social programs is a lack of understanding of what those programs are.  According to a New York Times article, “Many beneficiaries of government programs seem confused about their own place in the system. According to the article, 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 43 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits, and 40 percent of those on Medicare say that they “have not used a government program.”

The irony, of course, is that many who state they are opposed to government programs are actually beneficiaries of government support — they just don’t think of it that way.

This is overstatement, of course, but it also contains some truth. The question is, “Why do so many of the poor and working poor vote against their own economic best interest?”

Another factor that helps conservative candidates  attract less educated voters is that their ideology tends to fall on the less nuanced, more straightforward, more gut-response side of issues.  “Protect the unborn!”  “Eliminate the death tax!”  “Defend Israel no matter what.” “Welfare creates dependency.”    “Illegal aliens should self-deport.”  On some levels, it is difficult to present arguments against this kind of thinking.

Rural people in general and rural Mainers in particular tend to be independent-minded and skeptical of government.  The bigger and more distant the government, the higher the degree of skepticism.  This plays well into support for conservatives due to the Republican mantra of “smaller government.”

It is also important to acknowledge the role that the church plays in shoring up the rural conservative vote.  Especially for people with few social outlets, the church and the worldview offered within its walls can play a compelling role.  Adding to this, the rural poor attend church at a higher rate than other groups. A 2008 study found  church attendance in poor rural communities to be nearly double that in wealthier, more urban communities.  Not all rural churches are conservative-leaning, of course, but — for whatever reason — it seems the vast majority of them are.

It’s disheartening to think of so many of America’s downtrodden voting for candidates whose plan for the poor consists of (1) trickle down; and (2) admonitions to get up off the couch.  Unfortunately, there may not be much Democrats can do to change this between now and November 6 — so we just have to hope that the poor are smarter than  conservatives think.

The Inconvenient Truth of Child Poverty

Child Poverty Rates: Maine’s child poverty rate is slightly lower the national average at 18.2 percent. However, this figure is skewed by poverty rates in southern Maine that are as low as 13 percent. Washington County has the highest rate in Maine at 30 percent.

Why is it that we hear so much about the fact that student test scores in the United States are lagging behind other countries in the industrialized world?

Why is it that we hear so little about the fact that when it comes to child poverty,  the U.S. ranks as worst among similar countries in the industrialized world?

Like the melting of distant glaciers, child poverty is an an inconvenient truth that conservatives would rather avert their eyes from.  Confronting the truth of child poverty, would — after all –  force them to come to terms with the shortcomings of their own political ideals.  Far more convenient — and politically expedient — to hold that the impoverished 8-year old can raise himself on the bootstraps of his own academic achievement.   According to this narrative, any lack of achievement can rather conveniently be blamed on political adversaries such as teachers and teachers unions.

While the correlation between economic status and academic achievement has long been recognized, the convenient new conservative narrative holds that we should make no excuses for kids living in poverty.  With the right teachers and right administrators, the mantra holds, those kids can do as well as their more privileged peers.

However, it is not clear whether that mantra has any basis in fact.  As Valerie Strauss states, “The “no excuses” rhetoric . . . is one that is dearly beloved by the corporate education reformers  because it allows them to perpetuate (what many recognize to be) the American myth of meritocracy and continue the privatization movement under the guise of “improving schools” while avoiding addressing deeply entrenched inequities that exist in our society and are perpetuated by school structures. ”

Strauss goes on to explain how many of the measures that are part of the no excuses movement may actually hurt impoverished children rather than helping them:  “Standardized tests have cultural and racial biases; charter schools have been shown to disproportionately underserve children of color, English Language Learners, and special needs students; closing down “failing” schools forces children out of their home communities and disproportionately puts teachers of color out of work.”

From a competitive testing standpoint, at least, there may not be anything wrong with American schools at all.  As Mel Riddile documents, students at American schools that have low poverty rates actually test out better than their overseas counterparts.

Simply put, as Eugene Robinson argues, family income is a much more important factor in determining academic achievement than the much ballyhooed “teacher effectiveness.”

As stated by Tre’ Maxie in his Seattle TImes Op-Ed, in recent years, the income gap has surpassed the gap between racial groups in terms of limiting academic achievement:  “The achievement gap between low income and non-low income students has surged by more than 40 percent, and is now double the gap between African Americans and whites, according to a recent study by Stanford University Professor Sean Reardon.”

What we know is that poor kids face a whole set of physical, emotional, and mental challenges that are not faced by kids who are better off.   What we know is that the lives of those kids aren’t likely to get any better unless we as a society come together and, somehow, make them better.