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Stop Blaming Poor People for Their Poverty

The US political system is set up to limit the influence of the poor. Why should we blame them when it does exactly that?

"Poverty and Wealth" by William Powell Firth, 1888. Sotheby's New York / Wikimedia

Why do so many scholars blame the poor for their poverty?

In “Why the Poor Don’t Vote to Soak the Rich,” UCLA political scientist Daniel Treisman writes, “In a democracy, income inequality should in theory correct itself. The poor majority should vote to tax the rich and divide the proceeds among themselves. But that’s not happening in the United States.” While Treisman notes that a number of factors might explain this apparent puzzle, he focuses on poor people’s political ignorance, their misperceptions about economic inequality, and “the desire of millions to see themselves as more or less average.”

Many other scholars make similar arguments, attributing economic inequality to the voting behavior and attitudes of the poor. Yale political scientist Ian Shapiro, for instance, claims that most poor people do not want the wealthy to have a higher tax bill because they compare themselves not to the rich but to those closer to themselves in the social order.

But as I show in my forthcoming book Class Attitudes in America, these arguments rest on a shaky foundation: they assume poor people have the opportunity to vote directly on whether to levy higher taxes on the rich. In fact, in a representative democracy, people vote for politicians, and the politicians make policy. There is no guarantee that politicians will do what the public wants.

Rather than blaming poor people for economic inequality, it’s more useful to look at what happens when the public actually is allowed to vote directly on tax hikes.

In recent years, a number of state initiatives have given voters the chance to increase high-income earners’ tax burden. In most instances (though not all), these measures have been successful. In 2016, Maine voters gave the thumbs up to an additional 3 percent tax on those making more than $200,000. The same year, California residents also voted to boost taxes on the wealthy.

The future promises more of the same. In Massachusetts, for example, a constitutional amendment that proposes to increase taxes on earnings above $1 million will appear on the ballot later this year. A recent poll indicates that three-quarters of registered voters in the state support the amendment.

We cannot know for sure how residents outside these Democratic-leaning states would vote on similar measures. But surveys of nationally representative samples of Americans consistently demonstrate that majorities want the rich to pay more. Poor Americans are especially likely to support higher taxes on the rich.

The problem, in other words, isn’t that poor people oppose increases in taxes on the rich. The problem is that it often doesn’t matter what they want. As one influential article by Princeton professor Martin Gilens finds, poor Americans and even middle-class Americans have virtually no say in public policy when their opinions diverge from their well-heeled counterparts. “Influence over actual policy outcomes,” Gilens concludes, “appears to be reserved exclusively for those at the top of the income distribution.”

Consider the GOP tax bill that passed in December. A massive transfer of wealth to the top, the legislation was historically unpopular. If the outcome had hinged on the public opinion, it would have gone down in flames. It passed nonetheless.

Part of this has to do with the growth in income inequality and the power of the donor class. But it’s also been baked into the American political system from the very beginning. The framers of the constitution consciously reduced the average citizen’s influence by restricting their input to the election of representatives. Congress, James Madison argued, should “enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens” — congressional representatives. He hoped that these elected officials would go on to develop policy “that will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.” Madison believed that representatives would not follow public opinion and thought this was a good thing.

The framers of the constitution were especially concerned that poor people might have undue influence over public policy. As social scientists Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter observe, the framers “tended to equate socioeconomic status with civic ability.” Alexander Hamilton reassured his readers that the national legislature would “consist almost entirely of proprietors of land, of merchants, and of members of the learned professions.” Were he alive today, Hamilton might be happy to learn that millionaires make up majorities in Congress and a majority on the Supreme Court. They have also controlled nine of the last thirteen presidencies. Yet somehow, many still blame poor people for their lack of influence in the political system, even though the system was designed to limit their influence.

It’s true that voting rights are no longer limited to white male landowners. And it’s also true that many poor people do not participate in electoral politics. But it doesn’t follow that they refuse to support increases in taxes on the rich. Rather, many are alienated by their experiences with government, especially with the social welfare system or the carceral state, or are shut out entirely from voting due to incarceration or felony convictions.

So why don’t poor people vote to soak the rich? That’s any easy one: because they aren’t given that option. The better question is, “How can poor people get more power?”