Voting: a way for poor to lift themselves

November 01, 1998|By Carl T. Rowan

WASHINGTON -- Many Americans agonize over the fact that, despite all the promises of social justice, 35.6 million of our citizens live in poverty, 14.1 million of them children.

Others express guilt, even shame, that so many Americans have no meaningful access to decent medical care.

And some simply dismiss both problems by saying, "God helps those who help themselves."

The tragedy, though, is that disadvantaged Americans have so few ways in which to help themselves.

Johnson's legacy

President Lyndon Johnson used to say that poverty was a vicious circle from which there were very few exit gates. He described his social programs as new gates, and some of them, such as federal aid to higher education, have worked well. The G.I. Bill of Rights long ago swung wide as a gate of egress from the smothering circle of human want and hopelessness.

Changing policy

But little has been said about use of the ballot and how voting is a simple, almost cost-free way in which poor Americans can do something for themselves. If huge numbers of America's minorities and other poor people were to use the ballot on Tuesday, they could change the national atmosphere, most especially in Congress, where policy and appropriations decisions are made that profoundly affect the opportunities and hopes of the underprivileged.

So why aren't these groups brandishing the ballots they intend to cast and thus striking fear into the hearts of the hardhearted skinflints who are running for Congress, the governorships and other public offices? Because life seems to conspire against the poor and uneducated.

The poor tend to be poorly educated, and thus more apathetic about voting. They display more cynicism about their ability to change anything. They find it more difficult to decipher the double-talk of campaign rhetoric.

The neediest people have the hardest time leaving work to vote and finding transportation to the polling place. And despite abolition of poll taxes, racial restrictions and violent intimidations many poor people remain intimidated -- simply afraid to cast ballots.

While some idealists say that voting "is not just a right, it is a duty," the reality is that many states have made it a special privilege, and one that they have ripped away from many thousands of citizens who have committed crimes.

All these factors add up to a declaration that a top priority of every group working for civil rights and civil liberties (and for justice in general) ought to be registering, prodding and hauling nonaffluent people to vote. This would widen democracy by giving the most unfortunate Americans a real voice in their government, and it would give a meaningful conscience to state legislatures and Congress.

Sleeping voters

I know. Those who have, and want to keep, see the mass of nonactive eligible voters as a huge sleeping dog that the privileged ought let lie undisturbed. Some openly say that the poor are "too ignorant" to be voting and making decisions for a smarter, more productive class of Americans.

But no economic class of Americans has a monopoly on wisdom, or even common-sense. America needs the poor at the polling places Tuesday, especially to help God help them.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/01/98

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