Cut Out of Prosperity, Cutting Out at the Polls
By Dale Russakoff, The Washington Post,
Tuesday 24 October 2000; Page A01
CARBONDALE, Pa. -- You would think that residents of this worn-out
former mining town feel uncommonly connected to the 2000 presidential
campaign. State Democratic leaders still remark on the visit here last
month by Vice President Gore--the first White House hopeful to stop in
this town since the heyday of coal, the last heyday of Carbondale,
over half a century ago.
Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush also stumped in nearby Scranton,
center of the area's media market. And both have aired so many ads in
this market that until recently, the average person in Carbondale (or
Scranton or Wilkes-Barre or Honesdale) had seen more presidential
campaign spots than had television viewers anywhere in the United
So perhaps it's worth exploring why Mary and Paul Eakle, who live with
their three young children a short walk from Gore's Carbondale stop,
feel left out of Election 2000. Physical proximity, it turns out,
doesn't count for much because demographically, the Eakles feel as far
from the campaign as from Mars: They are young and poor.
"None of what they're saying is about us," said Mary Eakle,
25, a $7-an-hour assistant deli manager at nearby Weis Markets,
referring to a bombardment of ads featuring suburbanites and elderly
people. What would she like to hear about? "I want to be better
off for my kids. I don't want them to end up like us."
Low-income, working-age Ame- ricans, the least likely voters in a
country with the lowest voter turnout of all western democracies,
appear doubly alienated this election year. Not only have they watched
the nation's longest economic boom lift seemingly every boat but
theirs, but now come the major presidential nominees (literally within
shouting distance, in the Eakles' case), talking conspicuously past
them about tax relief for the middle class and prescription drugs for
When Gore was here, the Eakles said, the police tape securing the
motorcade route effectively barricaded them inside their subsidized
apartment complex. Also, Gore's speech was off-limits to ordinary
townspeople because he talked inside the gates of a factory--an island
of family-sustaining wages in a town where median household income is
$28,000. (Nationally, it's $40,816.)
Asked about Bush's and Gore's competing proposals for continuing the
nation's record-long prosperity, Paul, 29, whose only income is a
long-term disability stipend for a back injury, raised an
eyebrow. "We haven't felt any prosperity," he said. "I
think they just look where they want to look."
The surgically tailored themes of the 2000 campaign emerged from the
poll-driven practice of targeting political messages to registered,
likely voters--a process that excludes nonvoters and infrequent voters
even before candidates hit the trail. With the race one of the
tightest ever, the campaigns have zeroed in on undecided or
"swing" voters, whom polls find concentrated among
middle-income families and the elderly.
Alan D. Crockett, communications vice president for the polling firm
Zogby International, explained that campaign pollsters do not sample
opinions of people who say they are "very unlikely" or
"somewhat unlikely" to vote, even at preliminary
stages. "You conclude the conversation," he said.
Asked what would inspire these reluctant voters to vote, he said:
"We've never been asked to measure that question."
A Sense of Isolation
In three presidential debates, Gore and Bush barely mentioned what
their leadership would mean for the poor, city dwellers, minorities or
young people--constituencies important to the future, but solidly in
one camp or the other, or unlikely to vote.
Bush touted his plan to cut taxes by $1.3 trillion over nine years by
saying a typical family of four would save $2,000 annually. But the
family in his sample made $50,000 a year. The Eakles make less than
half that amount--too little to owe income taxes for Bush to cut.
By contrast, Gore proposes to make his family tax credits refundable,
meaning that families who qualify, but owe no income taxes, would
receive checks out of a total of billions of dollars. Robert
Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said the
differences between the candidates' programs for families making less
than $30,000 are among the starkest in the campaign. But Gore was
conspicuously silent on this point, even as he emphasized other
"major differences" between himself and Bush in the debates.
The biggest "cost" of voting in the view of nonvoters is not
time spent registering or going to the polls, but "just figuring
out what's going on," according to Ruy Teixeira, author of
"The Disappearing American Voter."
In the past, he said, partisanship made this easy: Democrats were the
party of working people; Republicans the party of business. With both
parties rhetorically targeting the same voters, the differences have
blurred, and the cost has gone up, he said.
Mary Eakle vaguely remembers seeing registration forms at ABC Academy
day care in Carbondale but said she didn't fill them out. "I'm so
busy working and running after kids," she explained, "I'd
never figure out who to vote for."
State Senate Minority Leader Robert Mellow, a Scranton area Democrat,
said voter turnout in northeastern Pennsylvania runs 5 percent to 10
percent behind more vibrant Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and he links
the difference to the economy. "We were down so long," he
said. "Coal went down almost 50 years ago. Some people are so
disillusioned they've given up."
A walk around downtown Scranton helps explain the isolation felt by
poor voters in this time of sustained prosperity nationally.
Devastated by the fall of coal and then textile mills, Scranton is
finally beginning to rebound.
Thanks to state and federal largess (known in Washington as
"pork"), decaying blocks of downtown have been reborn as a
railroad museum, a downtown mall and refurbished historic
buildings. Nearby, there are minor league baseball and hockey teams
and an office park that is home to customer service and operations
centers of major banking and retail companies.
"Last year and this year were the greatest years of new job
creation we've seen," said Austin Burke, president of the Chamber
of Commerce. The service jobs pay less than long-gone union mining
jobs, but high school graduates can make close to $20,000 in customer
service centers, most of which have "Now Hiring" signs out
front. With two incomes, most households can make $30,000, the
campaigns' approximate threshold for the middle class.
One place poor people are a visible presence is at the Penn Avenue bus
stop, where public transit deposits them. But within minutes, they
disperse into the city.
At downtown Scranton's Steamtown Mall, which attracts a middle- to
upper-income clientele, it took venturing into the ladies' room to
find Sally Kurtz, 56, a cleaning woman restocking toilet paper and
scouring washbasins. She said she lives with a daughter, who is a
presser in a pants factory, and her young grandson, on a household
income of about $25,000.
She said she won't vote because "I wouldn't know what to do when I
went behind the curtain." Asked what a candidate could say to make
her want to participate, she thought hard, then smiled like a child in
a fantasy world: "I'd like to be able to have a house."
Hope--and Change of Heart
Nationally, voter turnout is much lower among poor Americans than
among other income groups. According to the Center for the Study of
the American Electorate, 65.7 percent of people making $50,000 or more
voted in the 1996 presidential election, and turnout declined steeply
and consistently as income dropped. Just 28.6 percent of people making
less than $10,000 a year voted in that election.
Those low-income Americans who do vote are disproportionately elderly,
according to numerous polls. Gore has by far his biggest lead among
voters making less than $30,000.
Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, home to Scranton and Wilkes-Barre,
have among the highest concentrations of elderly voters in the United
States. Both campaigns have flooded local television with promises to
pay for prescription drugs for seniors.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said Gore "hasn't translated" his
ideas in ways that have meaning to working poor voters, whom he has
been rallying in recent tours of cities and rural areas.
"If you focus on polls and likely voters, you'll say 'prescription
drugs' 25 times a day," he said. "But when I say that in
California, you can go to college for free if you have a B average,
everyone cheers. Why not say, 'free tuition, free tuition, free
tuition?' You can register the unregistered, you can make the unlikely
likely, but you have to fish in deeper waters."
Interviews with about two dozen working-age, lower-income people here,
in Scranton and rural areas revealed no obvious preference for either
candidate. More than half said they won't vote. Those who do plan to
vote were noticeably more optimistic about their economic futures.
At Lackawanna Junior College in Honesdale, an old railroad town
northeast of Scranton, Megan Worzel, a 23-year-old single mother,
initially said she wasn't planning to vote because she didn't think
either candidate would make things better.
"I'm lucky if I even bring home $15,000 a year," she
said. "I never buy anything. My son needs clothes. He's turning 5
on Nov. 2, and I don't have the money to give him a birthday."
But recently she changed her mind after finding a better job and
qualifying for subsidized day care for her son. "What right do I
have to complain if I don't do my part?" she asked.
She said she had watched the last debate and was leaning toward Bush
because she found Gore more focused on his ideas than on
people. "Like this nonpolluting car," she said. "That
sounds great, but if he makes a law saying everyone has to drive one,
it's going to cost more than regular cars, and people like me won't be
able to afford it."
Mellow, the Scranton area lawmaker, said politicians rarely focus on
how many poor people have opted out of the political system unless
they confront it in dramatic fashion. He described a hearing, arranged
by advocates of the working poor, when the state raised the price of
subsidized day care by $10 a week.
Mellow expected few parents to attend, particularly on a frigid,
snow-slicked Saturday in February. "I walked in, and there must
have been 400 single mothers," he said. "They talked about
what $10 means if you have nothing left each week. A meal. Falling $40
behind in rent. Maybe being forced onto welfare. We got [the increase]
turned around after that."
Mellow said he asked for a show of hands: "How many of you are
registered to vote?"
Maybe three or four hands went up.
"They had the feeling," he said, "that no matter what they
did, nothing was going to change."
Voter turnout is much lower among poor people than among others. The
gap has grown since 1964, but not dramatically, because voter turnout
has declined in all income groups.
Presidential election voter turnout, by income level
| ||1964|| 1996
|$50,000 or more ||78.9% ||65.7%|
|$35,000 to $50,000|| 72.3% ||55.2%|
|$25,000 to $35,000|| 66.4% ||47.8%|
|15,000 to $25,000 ||56.7% ||41.7%|
|$10,000 to $15,000 ||51.6% ||35.3%|
|under $10,000|| 43.6%|| 28.6%|
NOTE: Income is in 1994 dollars
SOURCE: The Center for the Study of the American Electorate
copyright 2000 The Washington Post