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A House Divided: Blaming the Poor



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One of the more paradoxical trends affecting our nation’s politics today is the phenomenon of voters in very poor districts who had long supported the Democratic Party becoming solidly Republican in recent elections. One example is Pike County, Kentucky, one of the poorest jurisdictions in the United States. The county, which is just across the border from southwestern Virginia, is located squarely in Appalachia. It is extremely poor, has very high mortality, morbidity and unemployment rates and yet now routinely votes for very conservative Republicans, including the state’s libertarian senator, Rand Paul. Since Paul, like the majority of his Party’s leaders, now almost daily speaks against the government offering anything more than an extremely limited safety net, some authors have suggested that voters in Pike County and other similarly economically distressed jurisdictions evidencing the same trend are voting against their own interests. In fact, disproportionate numbers of individuals in Pike County do depend on government support for survival, whether because of a disability, often as a result of black lung or orthopedic problems arising from past work in now shuttered coal mines, or because of joblessness arising from the ongoing decline in employment, as traditional industries (principally coal mining in Pike County) continue an inexorable fall. Indeed, as long ago as 2004, Thomas Frank, in his best-selling book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, suggested that many of the nation’s working class and lower middle class voters often voted against their own interests as they supported GOP candidates who had no interest in continuing the public programs that sustained their families.[1] Frank argued that the Republican Party had squared this apparent circle by luring these individuals with its values-related stands concerning abortion and claims that Democrats aimed to take away their right to own guns and to hunt.

Whether that is so is debatable, but the trend of poor communities supporting conservative Republican candidates is surely constructed on at least two additional paradoxes. First, as Frank also argued, individuals who have begun in recent years to vote GOP, but who live in areas heavily dependent on state-sponsored safety net offerings, have suggested to pollsters they are doing so because they resent the rise of dependence on those programs in their communities by individuals whose moral worth they concomitantly have begun to question. That is, these voters have remained employed, often as teachers or firefighters or in other similar capacities (ironically, many of which are governmental), as the economy of their communities has continued to decline—in Appalachia that has coincided with the waning of the coal industry—while relatives, neighbors and acquaintances have lost their jobs. The obvious paradox here is that there are fewer opportunities for all citizens where these voters live, and those residing in these areas may not possess the educations or capacities to compete for such posts as may be available, for whatever complex sets of reasons. Nevertheless, their employed neighbors begrudge them their perilous status.

That is, as Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer of Johns Hopkins University have found, those individuals located in the second lowest quintile of the income ladder begin strongly in these situations of overall community decline to disassociate themselves from those now at the bottom.[2] Rather than empathize with those in the quartile beneath them, these citizens begin to despise their neighbors now in poverty and agree with GOP candidate arguments that their friends’ condition is their own responsibility alone, for which society need not accept any claim. Importantly, the needy individuals now the targets of active discrimination by their fellow citizens did not create globalization, nor do they control the choices that have sent their communities into an economic tailspin. In short, reality is considerably more complicated than those now casting aspersion on their neighbors contend it to be. Nonetheless, in this working and lower middle class group’s view, their jobless fellow citizens have become dependent creatures taking money from their pockets, rather than working. This ascribed stereotype neatly fits Americans’ age old propensity to distinguish between the worthy and unworthy poor, but in this case these slightly better off citizens have subtly shifted this axiom so as to label nearly all people now receiving public support (mostly in the form of food stamps or disability support in Kentucky and elsewhere in Appalachia) as weak and morally contemptuous, irrespective of the causes of their impoverished condition or their personal capacity to address those.

In this way, and in an interesting, if lamentable, sense, these citizens are practicing a kind of class-based discrimination or classism. In their zeal to justify and legitimate their own position in the socioeconomic firmament, these individuals now identify with those better off than they are while heaping contempt on their now “dependent” former peers so as to separate themselves from those individuals. They then begin to support politically those who provide a narrative that legitimates their discriminatory stance. Now, none of this is to argue that all of those unemployed and receiving support are angels, but that really is not the point. The question is whether citizens as community are prepared to act to address reality, whatever its complexities. In these jurisdictions at least, where joblessness has become a fact of life for many, they have not been. Instead, they have elected to blame unemployed individuals for their situations and to characterize them as lazy lay-abouts. They have also begun to vote for politicians who echo and reinforce that description and blame the jobless alone for their situations.

In an odd way, this dynamic points to a second paradox implicit in the scenario of poor and economically declining areas supporting leaders who run for office arguing they will work to deepen the penury of those already suffering: those most affected by the decline in these communities, the most poor, have stopped voting. For example, even as the number of individuals receiving Supplemental Nutritional Assistance in Pike County, Kentucky reached more than 17,000 this year, the total number of individuals voting in the November 2015 gubernatorial election in the county of 63,000 fell to just 11,233. Those most afflicted by declining economic conditions are not voting while those just above them in the economic pecking order are doing so and “othering” their fellow citizens now mired in poverty.

This scenario has several implications. First, those who do not vote in democracies will generally be ignored. If the poor do not vote, they will likely continue to be fodder for ambitious leaders scapegoating them and the conditions they confront for a receptive audience. Second, given this political reality in many jurisdictions, it seems clear the poor will not only endure continued degradation and indignity, but their life conditions may well deteriorate further simultaneously, since in many of the affected communities, cultural mythology notwithstanding, there are few or no jobs for those now suffering unemployment to substitute for public support. Whether that fact can be changed in the longer pull remains an open question, but it appears that the poor and jobless will endure social stigmatization and all that entails for the foreseeable future.

Finally, this reality has implications for democratic governance, as it amounts to a spreading and popularly supported form of discrimination against one segment of the population, an anathema to democratic principles and possibility. The result, should this trend persist, will be ever more hollow communities and an increased likelihood not only of even greater levels of economic inequality and destitution in the population, but also of decreased social capacity to respond to the very real challenges the underlying economic conditions now characterizing these communities represent.

This situation constitutes a festering social crisis of large proportions not wholly unlike that on which Abraham Lincoln remarked when accepting his Party’s senatorial nomination on June 16, 1858. The future U.S. President used his speech to address the nation’s growing division concerning slavery. One might well contend that systematic social discrimination and degradation of the poor encouraged by one of the nation’s major political parties represents a similar challenge to the sinews of our society or to the character of the American Union.

As with slavery in 1858, the political scapegoating afoot in Pike County, Kentucky and elsewhere today cannot be permitted to continue. This has nothing to do with whether one favors or opposes the Party benefitting from this turn as a partisan matter. Rather, the costs for self-governance of allowing this scenario to endure are simply too high to be accepted. As Lincoln observed concerning slavery, one might well warn regarding today’s popular willingness to discriminate against the poor and downtrodden:

We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation.  Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented.  In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.  ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’  I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.  I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided.  It will become all one thing or all the other.[3]

The issue that arises, as a substantial portion of our citizenry continues to evidence a willingness to deride and to discriminate against a share of its own, is what sort of polity we wish collectively to be. The answer to that query remains unclear, but it is of fundamental importance to the nation’s future.


[1] Frank, Thomas, 2004. What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York: Metropolitan Books.

[2] Edin, Kathryn and H. Luke Shaefer, 2015. $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

[3] Lincoln, Abraham, 1858. “House Divided Speech.” Abraham Lincoln OnlineSpeeches and Writings Retrieved, December 31, 2015. (emphasis in the original speech)

Publication Date

January 4, 2016