14 February 2006

The Emerging Lower Class

Colorado Public Radio's fundraising campaign is on again, and they frequently have touted the statistic that 30,000 people donate an average of $120 to the station, and that about 300,000 people listen. There are other public radio stations in Colorado, but CPR is the dominant player in terms of listenership.

David Milstead at the Rocky recently reminded us of the subscription numbers for the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post (with a number of caveats):

In the six months ended Sept. 30, 2005, The Post's circulation was 264,301, with the News reporting 263,425. One year earlier, The Post reported 275,292, with the News at 275,136.


There are, of course, other papers in the state, but within the Denver metro area, the only other daily paper most people would subscribe to instead of the two big papers, is the Boulder Daily Camera (which has a circulation of about 41,000).

Thus, there are fewer than 569,000 households with daily paper subscriptions in the Denver metro area (the Denver Post is a paper with statewide circulation, some people subscribe to more than one paper, and some subscriptions are to businesses, although a small number of people subscribe to out of state papers like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or USA Today to the exclusion of the local papers). This works out to about fewer 1.4 million people in those households. Thus, significantly less than two-thirds of households in the Denver metropolitan area take a newspaper.

There were 2,130,325 people who voted for a candidate in the 2004 Presidential elections. In the 2005 off year elections (in which the most notable matter was the vote on Referrendums C and D), votes were cast by 1,161,924 people.

There are about 4.3 million people in Colorado, about half of whom live in the Denver metropolitan area.

The figures don't overlap neatly, but perhaps 40% of the people in Colorado neither take a daily paper, nor listen to public radio, nor vote. Their access to news comes largely through brief snippets on commercial radio and television. Only about a quarter of the people in Colorado vote in off year elections, and this is also the group from which the people who listen to public radio and actually read their daily newspapers at some length is largely drawn.

This politically uninvolved and largely unaware demographic is a huge part of Colorado's population.

This lack of awareness and involvement isn't meaningfully due to economic barriers. The coupons that come with a daily paper for items like groceries each week pretty much pay for the subscription. Aside from a one time ten dollar purchase of a radio (and I have yet to see a car that doesn't have a radio included), listening to the news on public radio is free. Registering to vote is a major barrier to voting in real life, but this illustrates just how marginally involved many voters are, as this is also free and the voter registration form is not a difficult one to complete. Everyone has a legal right to time off to vote, and it doesn't take that long, and at most, you vote only a couple of days each year.

The far bigger factors are education and a sense of civic responsibility and involvement. Few members of the uninvolved class have graduated from college, most have never even attended college, and many have not even graduated from high school. Few members of the uninvolved class work in managerial, professional, technical or higher end sales jobs (like real estate sales, stock brokers, commodity brokers and insurance sales). I suspect that more members of this class rent than own their homes. The members of this class tend to be younger than average. The vast majority of pawn shop, payday loan and rent-to-own customers are members of this class, as are the vast majority of people who don't have bank accounts. When they have to show up at court, they usually do so without lawyers (other than the public defender), if they show up at all. They disproportionately lack health insurance, and their children are rarely the ones earning "advanced" ratings on the CSAPs.

I don't have any grand plans for involving more of these people in politics or civic life, although ideas like election day voter registration, shorter ballots, better notification of election place locations, and ending prohibitions on parolees voting would be a start. Sponsoring news programs on commercial radio and television programs that meet them half way, offering more substance than the nightly news, but less heft than public radio and television, in short doses, also comes to mind. Even the BBC has more plebian oriented newscasts than NPR. Grass roots economic education is needed as well - getting just one paycheck ahead, instead of one paycheck behind, in their finances would make a tremendous difference to this group of people for whom a moderately serious illness, several traffic fines, broken down car, brief period of unemployment, burglary or other minor life trauma can send their lives spinning out of control.

But, most of all, it is important, in the rush of political analysis and policy making, simply to remember that they exist. The uninvolved class, because they don't participate in politics, aren't well taken care of by it.

In the 1980s, the big worry was a developing "underclass", comprised mostly of ghettoized minorities in jobless neighborhoods with few businesses and dismal schools who relied on welfare and crime survive. Some of that was myth, but it was a widely influential myth. In this first decade of the 21st century, we are seeing a different phenomena. The working class and lower middle class (which are themselves increasingly synonomous) are increasingly becoming a genuine and growing "lower class", excluded from most of the benefits of living in our nation and detached from its affairs.

Democrats have spent several decades not fighting class warfare. And, the emerging lower class in America has paid the price for this inaction. The minimum wage is at a record low in real terms, the ranks of the uninsured are growing, and almost all of the economic growth since the 1970s has accrued to the college educated, managerial-professional class that makes up about a quarter to a fifth of the population, leaving everyone else little better off than they were a generation ago, if not worse. Maybe, if Democrats did more to serve their interests, like spending the $80 billion a year it would take to make health care universal, or coming up with credible educational options for students who are not college bound, the members of this class would take a greater interest in politics and in turn help Democrats win more elections. It is an opportunity we can count on the Republicans not taking up. The opportunity is ours to seize.

1 comment:

EMRosa said...

Great post.