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Lori Rivas: Economic disparities in US civics

Posted: September 18, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 18, 2012 2:00 a.m.

What if there existed a segment of our citizenry that, by and large, does not vote and does not register to vote?

What if this group was not courted by politicians nor issued invitations to participate in civic life?

What if the education of this group was substandard?

What if this group’s interaction with government agencies was largely contentious, aggressive and unresponsive, and, therefore, this population was not particularly motivated to poke their heads above water, politically speaking?

And what if this population voted at half the rate of the general population and was six times less likely to be politically active than the general population?

You might be thinking that I am referencing American history, perhaps when poll taxes were being used to stop African-Africans from voting or when women were barred from voting; I’m not.

I am referencing modern American society.

Just as our predecessors recognized and changed the voting disparities of yesterday, so, too, modern citizens must do the same.

Today, poverty is the clearest predictor of a lack of civic participation.

Does this not alarm you?

How can it be that the very population that stands to gain, perhaps, the most from active political participation is the least active?

Should not the poor, especially, by the very nature of their circumstances, be motivated to participate in civic life, to work toward changing and solving problems equated with poverty?

Why, then, are the poor seemingly complacent about civic duties? There are no physical restrictions on poor people voting; it is external factors which suppress the civic participation of the poor.

Recently, I attended an all-day Constitution seminar at the Reagan Library. Dr. Meira Levinson, author of “No Citizen Left Behind” (Harvard University Press, 2012), spoke about this voting disparity and the educational possibilities to empower poor youth to participate in civic life.

I walked away from Levinson’s presentation thinking about the implications to our government if the poor don’t vote: How paternalistic and condescending is it to believe we can solve the problems of the poor if our government and civic life are devoid of their participation?

How can we pretend that our government is representative of everyone when, clearly, it is largely the white, wealthy and educated who sit at the table?

And lest you think that this is some bleeding heart liberal cause looking for a make-believe injustice, feast your eyes on this:

“Registering (the poor) to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals. It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population. ... Encouraging those who burden society to participate in elections isn’t about helping the poor. It’s about helping the poor to help themselves to others’ money,” Matthew Vadum, wrote in an article for “American Thinker,” on Sept. 1, 2011.

Or this:

“I want every legal vote to count, but it’s outrageous to use taxpayer dollars to register welfare recipients. ... This effort to sign up welfare recipients ... means that I’m going to have to work that much harder to get out my pro-jobs, pro-free enterprise message,” said Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., on Aug. 8.

And lastly:

“If people cannot even feed and clothe themselves, should they be allowed to vote?” said Rush Limbaugh on Dec. 3, 2010.

It is a sick, sick world in which people say these kinds of things and without apology.

Since when does empowering the poor to vote equal some perceived injustice?

Similar civic disparities occur in Santa Clarita, as well. One example is the recent (and currently being re-activated) Citizens Public Library Advisory Committee, many of its members privately courted by City Hall. The 37-member committee is nearly unanimously Caucasian, and not one of the members represents the interests of the poor — the very demographic for which libraries were established and for which library services are vital.

It behooves citizens to consider why or how the poor are being politically marginalized. Just, exactly, whose ideas “count” in our civic discourse?

How can we pretend that our government is representative of everyone when, statistically, it is not?

Society benefits when the divergent voices of many convene to weigh in on government. Conversely, it is a moral outrage, and we suffer collectively, when the poor are discounted as an equally important voting population.

“The fact that many voices (mostly those of the poor and people of color) are not heard by politicians and policy-makers not only tarnishes the promise of American democracy but also yields ineffective public policy,” Levinson said.

It is wrong that we can predict civic involvement by income. People of conscience do not stand idly by while others are shut out of society.

Bring quality education to the poor. Fight for equal protection under the law. Fund sufficient law enforcement for poorer districts. Invite the poor to the decision-making table. Equitably invest in the infrastructure and the development of the areas “across the tracks.”

Because a democracy that does not fight to include all citizens is no democracy at all.

“The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” — Proverbs 29:7

Lori Rivas, amateur opinionator and recipient of zero awards, lives across the border in Newhall and is hoping that the voices in her head will bother you, too.


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