“We’re all in the same boat.”
That’s a phrase we’ve heard over and over again since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, we all live under the threat of a deadly disease—and a majority of Americans have adhered to public health guidelines asking us to stay at home as much as possible and wear masks when we leave. In that sense, we are in the boat together.
At the same time, however, millions of Americans lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic lockdown. Millions more are living under the threat of reduced hours or layoffs. Racial differences sharpen the hardship. For example, 61% of laid-off white women ultimately got new jobs—but only 34% of Black women did, according to Labor Department data through August. As unemployment benefits end, the country’s most affluent workers have largely bounced back to their previous jobs, and those in well-positioned industries are even prospering.
These facts make the COVID-19 recession the most unequal in American history. According to an analysis by The Washington Post, “The less workers earned at their job, the more likely they were to lose it as businesses across the country closed.” The news is even worse when we look at the health consequences. Low-income people and ethnic minorities are being hit harder by COVID-19 than people with more advantages.
As we near the November 3, 2020, presidential election, these disparities in income and health are going to show up in another way: the ability to vote. Almost every study ever done of inequality and voting shows that economic deprivation and bad health reduce voter participation—and thus political power. In this sense, we are definitely not in the same boat.
There are no easy solutions to this problem, because it arises directly from an inherently unequal economic system. We can take heart, however, from our scientifically documented bias in favor of equity and fairness. For much of American history, churches, unions, and non-profit organizations have worked to win voting rights for the disenfranchised and involve marginalized people in the political process. COVID-19 has made this work more difficult—but it’s not stopping them from trying.
How inequality hurts voting
In his 1960 book, The Semisovereign People, the political scientist Elmer E. Schattschneider argued that economic inequality was a form of voter suppression. In his view, this happened because economic inequality allowed the affluent and wealthy to set the terms of the debate and so get the outcomes that serve their interests. If the political system seemed to work mainly for their benefit, then poor and working-class people had less incentive to participate.
In subsequent decades, economic inequality rose in the United States as voter participation fell, a correlation that seemed to confirm Schattschneider’s theory. However, it wasn’t until the 21st century that political scientists tested whether inequality actually reduced voting.
In 2010, Frederick Solt (now at the University of Iowa) examined the relationship between income inequality and voting in the gubernatorial elections of 45 states. The results were startling: People were 20% less likely to vote in the most unequal state than they were in the least unequal state. In states with the lowest inequality, the wealthiest citizens were 14% more likely to vote than the poorest ones. In the most unequal states, that difference rose to 24%.
By looking at 144 elections held at different points in time, Solt was able to show how voting rates fell over time after inequality rose. Thus, the relationship between inequality and voting isn’t just correlational—it’s causal.
The upshot: Inequality does, in fact, powerfully depress voting among low-income people. This insight has been confirmed by other, more recent studies. A new analysis published by the website FiveThirtyEight looks at polling data for the 2020 election to come to the same conclusion: As incomes go down, so does voter participation.
Why? Solt came to a conclusion similar Schattschneider’s. “Greater economic inequality increasingly stacks the deck of democracy in favor of the richest citizens, and as a result, most everyone else is more likely to conclude that politics is simply not a game worth playing,” Solt writes in a 2008 paper. However, it’s almost certainly the case that low-income voters—and especially Black and Latino citizens—face much more tangible barriers on their way to the polls, especially in 2020.
According to numerous surveys and studies, millions of votes are lost in presidential elections due to registration problems. African-American and Latino voters—who are poor at a rate more than twice that of whites—are two times more likely than white voters to be asked to show photo ID at the polls. In some cases, the ID regulations are explicitly slanted in favor of white or more affluent constituencies. In Texas, for example, citizens can use gun licenses to vote—but not student IDs. More than 80% of handgun licenses go to white Texans, while more than half of students in the University of Texas system are ethnic minorities, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
In addition, Blacks, Latinos, and low-income voters are much more likely than whites to report transportation problems on voting day, as well as bad times and locations as reasons for not getting to the polls—often because of less-flexible work schedules and longer hours. What about mail-in voting? African Americans are much less likely to request absentee ballots out of distrust of the system. Their fear seems justified: An investigation by ProPublica found Black voters in North Carolina “were more than twice as likely to have mail-in ballots rejected than those submitted by the state’s white voters in 2018, and rejection rates for 2020 show a similar pattern.”
Meanwhile, white voters were much more likely to say they didn’t vote because they simply didn’t like the choices. In short, writes Daniel Weeks in The Atlantic Magazine, “The surveys suggest that white citizens who abstain from voting do so primarily by choice, while the majority of minority non-voters face problems along the way.”
In the 2020 election, voters are facing even more formidable obstacles in making their voices heard. Some state governments seem to be actively trying to suppress the votes of Black, Latino, and low-income citizens by reducing the number of polling places in their communities, among other tactics. There are even examples of outright voter intimidation by white supremacist, militia organizations, and law enforcement—efforts that the Trump campaign seems to be endorsing. These tactics are not new in American history, but it’s frightening to see their resurgence.
How inequality affects health and voting
The pandemic is yet another barrier to voting, because it makes going to a polling place feel like a dangerous proposition to many people—and once they get there, even with the availability of early voting, citizens in many states are facing long lines and crowded conditions. (In fact, fear of long waits is the number one barrier to voting in 2020, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis, even for those who say they “always vote.”)
This may keep all types of people away, but there’s an additional problem: Black, Latino, and low-income voters have been much more likely to suffer health problems due to COVID-19, both directly and indirectly. They not only have a higher risk of infection and death, but also face more of the health risks that go along with being unemployed—such as heart disease, strokes, and mental health problems like depression and anxiety, all of which reduce voting.
Even without the impact of the global pandemic, economic deprivation is a double whammy, when it comes to voting: If you’re poor, you’re more likely to have bad health—and if you’re not healthy, you’re not as likely to vote. According to the U.S. Census, people with chronic illnesses, mental health concerns, and disabilities were less likely to vote in the 2016 presidential election.
In 2001, researchers at Harvard examined the Current Population Survey results from 1990, 1992, 1994, and 1996 to find that individuals living in states with high voting inequality between socioeconomic groups were much more likely to report fair or poor health compared to those living in states with lower voting inequality. This association between inequality, health, and voting holds true in other countries, as well.
To confirm this link between health inequalities and political participation, researchers Aaron Reeves and Johan Mackenbach studied voter registration and health data from 17 European countries. Indeed, they found inequalities in political participation are correlated with greater health inequalities.
Health policy researchers Sarah Gollust and Wendy Rahn at the University of Minnesota ascribe the association between ill health and low voter participation to a few reasons. For one, people with health challenges may have weakened social networks, reducing their social interactions, which in turn seems to reduce voting. Researchers in Finland found that healthier people had greater social connectedness, which in turn led them to vote more, probably because a sense of connection with others encourages people to participate in collective activities like voting. When we lose those social connections, voting just doesn’t seem as important.
Additionally, people experiencing health challenges may have decreased access to resources that would otherwise prompt them to vote. These individuals may disconnect from their neighborhood, spend less time in community spaces, or not be reached through voter registration efforts.
The correlation becomes a vicious circle: Bad health causes individuals to be less likely to vote, which in turn may deprioritize equitable health policy, just as low-income voters don’t see their issues addressed—and this results in a dysfunctional health care system that has some of the worst outcomes in the developed world.
How do we move forward?
These systemic issues can’t be solved overnight—or by November 3. But over the long haul, rectifying these disparities starts with recognizing we have a problem in the first place.
Today, many people believe in inequality as a driver for success: If we don’t face the possibility of failure, then why would we be driven to get ahead in our jobs and make more money? In this view, the affluent and the rich deserve more political power because they have worked harder and smarter to get what they have. For many, inequality is a feature, not a bug, of American democracy.
To others, inequality is a problem to solve. From the very beginning of the United States, the poor and dispossessed have fought back against the forces that try to prevent them from gaining political power, organized through labor unions, churches, community organizations, and political parties. Through years of struggle and advocacy, suffrage—which was originally restricted to property-owning white males—gradually expanded to include naturalized citizens, renters and sharecroppers, African-American males, women, and Native Americans.
Today, organizations like the Poor People’s Campaign, NonprofitVOTE, Voto Latino, NAACP, and Black sororities and fraternities are working nationally to give ethnic minorities and low-income people more of a voice in politics, through voter registration, education, legal aid, transportation, and more. In cities around the country, organizations are working on a local level to mobilize marginalized constituencies. In California, for example, we have Bay Area Rising Action, Alliance San Diego, Lift Up Contra Costa, and United We Dream, among many others.
There are good reasons why people of all stripes, including the affluent, would want to pursue this work. After all, research suggests that inequality can make even the most advantaged people unhappy and unhealthy—and that’s why the cooperative, egalitarian impulse is strong in our brains and behavior. We might not be in the same boat, but we can choose to row in the same direction.
“Americans are happier when national wealth is distributed more evenly than when it is distributed unevenly,” write the authors of one 2011 study with more than 50,000 participants. “If the ultimate goal of society is to make its citizens happy, then it is desirable to consider policies that produce more income equality, fairness, and general trust.”
In 2020—in the midst of political violence, the pandemic, mass unemployment, and rampant voter suppression—aspirations for equality and well-being for all might feel pie-in-the-sky. But there’s something inspiring about the long lines and massive early voting that we are seeing in the 2020 election. People are worried, and it seems that many are overcoming barriers of poverty and disease to vote in record numbers.
Will their vote make a difference? All we can do right now is hope so.