Poverty and Voter Participation

A democratic form of government is unique in that all citizens have an equal vote or voice in shaping policy or electing government officials. The population participates effectively in the determination of their lives for themselves either

directly or through their elected representatives. Equal opportunity is a central component of democracy. Each individual, whether rich or poor, strong or weak, has the same chance to participate and influence governmental action. Without this participation, a democracy is neither representative, nor efficient.

When considering democratic participation, one cannot help but wonder if all people truly do have the same opportunity to contribute. Equality in democracy appears to be a concept that has been buried by the seemingly more important attributes such as wealth, power, and influence. Have the poor become so disenfranchised that they no longer care to play a part in democratic processes? This leads me to my research question: how does poverty affect democratic participation? In searching for the answer to this query, I will examine possible factors that could explain why the poor may not be as capable or willing as the rich to shape public policy or elect officials. A review of the voting trends of poorer peoples as compared to those of the wealthy in various democratic nations throughout the world will help me to understand which economic group is more likely to show up and contribute on Election Day. It is my hypothesis that poverty results in decreased engagement in democratic processes.

Certain unfulfilled needs of the poor put them at a disadvantage as compared to the affluent when it comes to democratic participation. Whether it concerns the human body’s most basic needs such as food and shelter or more developed needs such as education, the well-off clearly are steps ahead of the less fortunate. I will spend the next several paragraphs explaining how such essentials impact the political input of those stricken by poverty.

Human beings have certain basic needs. Until these are fulfilled, all other needs are not of importance. Food is one such necessity. The poor may not always have ready access to nourishment and thus are less concerned with more distant matters such as elections and policy choice. Without the energy that is provided by food, individuals cannot hope to function effectively. It is in the face of such dire straits that democratic participation is not of great concern. What is worse is the fact that the little access to food the poor have is insecure. The underprivileged must rely on charity, handouts, or begging for their sustenance (Sibanda, 2006, p.7). The constant threat of starvation will draw anyone’s attention away from democratic contribution. The wealthy, on the other hand, have no need to worry about where their next meal will come from and thus can focus their attention towards matters of political importance.

On the same level of importance of food is the matter of shelter. “Not shelter for its own sake, but adequate shelter conducive to a healthy and comfortable pursuit of life. Many people in Africa are living in the most shocking conditions” (Sibanda, 2006, p.7). Poor living conditions do not assist in any way to a desire to participate in any kind of political activity. A disadvantaged man or woman living in the Democratic Republic of Congo is unlikely to travel to the voting station when his or her home is in constant danger of falling apart.

An education is vital to any person who wishes to make beneficial political decisions. Being educated not only increases one’s chances of gaining access to all kinds of resources, it allows one to avoid exclusion from the governmental processes of one’s country. If one wishes to exercise one’s rights, one must be educated about those rights. “It is not enough to teach people how to vote and remind them every so often of their basic rights as relates to the election process, people need to be educated about the entire political system” (Putnam, 2006, p.1). Often times the poor are not privileged to have access to a meaningful education. Consequently, they frequently do not comprehend where they stand in the political system beyond the vote. It is in formal educational structures that this kind of information is made available, resulting in a better informed upper class.

This leads one to believe that the wealthy are more likely to engage in democratic participation. It is an unfortunate fact that many of the democratic nations in Africa spend more on defense than they do education. Fortunately, efforts are being made to remedy this problem. In South Africa, for example, there is an ongoing campaign with the goal of informing the public of their rights and how they can actively participate in the democratic processes. (Sowman. 2006. p.6)

Health and medical needs are other factors that could lead to less governmental contribution by the poor. The poor in many democratic nations throughout the world are not provided with adequate health services. Issues of distance and cost result in the exclusion of provisions for the financially disadvantaged. Additionally, public hospitals are unable to give necessary treatment to those unable to afford private care. (Abelson. 2002. p. 27) Clearly, people suffering from an ailment or who have questionable health are not likely to take part in democratic functions. Mothers and fathers do not wish to leave their sick and dying children so that they may vote in an election. “Even as people recognize the failing of their political institutions in providing for their needs and even if they are fully aware of their rights and how to exercise them, they are disinclined to do so if they are sick or their families are sick all the time” (Sibanda. 2006. p. 8)

The poor suffer another setback as they may not have access to information on the actions and processes of their government. Government headquarters are typically in urban areas which may be a great distance from the rural poor. For those living in shacks many miles away from major cities, the democratic government may be viewed as a distant entity that does not pertain to their simple lives. This could decrease any and all motivation to make their presence felt on the government. Meanwhile, the wealthy living in or around these urban areas are likely to participate as they feel more directly impacted by elections, decisions, policies, etc.

A final setback experienced by those living in poverty that could hinder their democratic participation is a language barrier. In numerous African democratic nations, “language continues to be the most important vehicle of exclusion in democratic participation in Africa. A significant proportion of the African population does not use the colonial language as a means of communication” (Sibanda. 2006. p.10) This limits participation to those sufficiently fluent in the colonial language. This group tends to be the more affluent members of society. The poor are unable to take an active part in the democratic system as the system is based on a language unknown to the needy. This is a sad truth as these people are excluded from the political process despite being the ones most affected by the governmental actions.

All of these setbacks would lead one to believe that the poor in most democratic nations throughout the world participate significantly less than the wealthy in governmental affairs. Nevertheless, this has proven not to be the case. It is true that the poor demonstrate less desire to engage in democratic participation in some nations. In the United States, for example, only 55 to 60 percent of eligible voters visit the voting stations to do perform their democratic duty. (Arnold. 2004. p.1) Of these eligible voters that participate, less than five percent are below the poverty line. (Arnold. 2004. p. 1) This confirms that in the United States of America, the economically wealthy are more active participants in democratic processes.

However, this finding does not apply to all democracies on Earth. An example of this is demonstrated by the Philippines, where those classified as lower class comprise 60 percent of all voters. (Coronel. 2004. p. 1) Beginning in 1998, the poor Filipino vote played a significant role in the outcome of the presidential elections. A poll determined that, “class, rather than age, gender, or geography determined the vote” (Coronel. 2004. p. 1)

Why is it that in the Philippines the poor are so eager to participate democratically while those of the same class level in America and African democracies seem to care so little? In the Philippines, elections are viewed as games of chance. Voters can either win or lose. Because they have so little opportunity to win in other facets of life, the poor in this nation choose to take advantage of democratic systems to make their voices heard. (Coronel. 2004. p. 5) Elections to them are the only legitimate means to choose a leader; thus, they passionately engage in the process. “The voter turnout among the poor in the Philippines has historically been higher than among the more affluent classes” (Coronel. 2004. p. 5). The election game of chance results in both a valid system as well as a source of entertainment.

For the poor that do engage in democratic participation, one must wonder what values they embrace, how they are influenced, and what they look for in government and leadership. When it comes to choosing candidates, the poor seek an individual who is educated, has experience, a good track record, and an effective political platform. Wealth and power are not necessarily attractive qualities of candidates. Rather, honesty, responsibility, willingness to help, and an overall goodness of character are desired leadership traits. (Chua. 2004. p. 6)

What influences the economically misfortunate in their democratic participation? “The most important sources of influence of the poor are, in declining order: the media, the family, the church, and political parties. Surveys come last on the list” (Chua. 2004. p. 6) There is a general distrust of surveys and a belief that one’s vote should be based on the qualifications and history of the candidate. The media holds the most influence as it provides information about the candidates on a mass scale. The media allows the poor to observe the behavior, manner of speaking, and get an overall sense of the personality of those running for office. It is typically a trait of poor families to agree on election choices. Hence, the family is of great influence when it comes to democratic participation.

Why do the poor in some democratic nations take such an active role in government while the poor in other such countries remain idle? The degree of poverty can provide an explanation. South Africa, a democratic nation, millions of citizens live in conditions unfit for even the lowliest of creatures. All of the factors discussed earlier that could hinder democratic participation combine in such an environment to make it impossible to go protest a policy or listen to a political debate. Thus, democratic participation is particularly unlikely to take place among the poor in such a region. (Everatt. 2003. p. 14)

On the other hand, Mexico, another democratic nation experiences higher participation among the poor in terms of voting and seeking policy reform. Although those living in poverty in this country still must endure atrocious living conditions and are in dire need, the state of poverty is not quite as bad compared to a country like South Africa. The average household income in Mexico is greater than that of South Africa and the nation also enjoys a lower percentage of its total population living in poverty as compared to its African cousin. (UNICEF. 2006)

The resources that a democratic government provides to its constituency is another possible explanation for the difference in democratic participation among the poor in various nations. Public health, education, and welfare services are all likely to affect the poor’s ability or willingness to contribute to their government. With regards to health, a nation’s life expectancy, infant mortality rate, accessibility to drinking water, and government financed vaccines and immunizations are clear indicators of the services provided to the public. Germany enjoys greater democratic participation among the poor than a nation such as Guatemala. (UNICEF. 2006) Germany also shows a higher life expectancy, lower infant mortality rate, greater access to drinking water, and more government financed health care. Thus, Guatemalans are more concerned about the health status of themselves and their families, reducing their opportunity to participate democratically.

The provision of education by democratic governments also seems to influence the poor’s desire or ability to chip in with regards to politics. With a higher literacy rate, school enrollment ratio, and access to internet, it is no wonder Iceland has greater democratic participation among the poor than the nation of Jamaica. (UNICEF. 2006) The Icelandic government’s provision of more efficient public schooling puts this country at a clear advantage when it comes to the ability or desire of the economically disadvantaged to vote, protest, or decide policy. The Jamaicans, with a smaller number of educated poor, experience less democratic participation as a result.

I have reached the conclusion that poverty, for the most part, does place individuals at a disadvantage when it comes to participating in democratic processes. Lack of adequate food, shelter, education, and access to information, in addition to language barriers, all act as hindrances to one’s ability to contribute to democracy. There are nations in which the voting turnout and participation of the poor are greater than that of the affluent, but these are rate. The severity of poverty as well as the provision of public services and goods by democratic governments are factors that explain why some democracies experience greater participation among the poor. The more severe the poverty, the less likely the poor are to make their impact felt on government. The more a democracy provides public needs such as education and health care, the more likely the poor are to contribute. It is my opinion that a nation can claim to be a democracy, but until the poor population is
equally as capable as the wealthy to participate, the democracy is false. The poor have a voice that deserves to be heard.