Is red the color of poverty? Part 2

Monday, January 21, 2013 - 9:22am

by Lakshman Yapa, Department of Geography, Penn State

Even though higher income households vote Republican in all regions of the country, paradoxically, states that vote Republican are overwhelming poor. This is part two of a two-part series exploring issues in electoral gridlock, the geography of poverty, low voter turnout among the young, and public scholarship. Read part one here.

Part 2: Beyond the red and blue divide

What’s the Matter with American Youth? Leading up to the elections of 2012, the American left heaped scorn on the Tea Party; in an interview with David Letterman on April 26, 2011 Bill Maher called them, "Corporate America’s useful idiots."  In my opinion, The Tea Party’s incendiary-circle-the wagons brand of politics should not be held responsible for the Democratic setbacks in 2010 when they have consistently failed to exercise agency over their own electoral fate.  For example, according the US Census data on Voting and Registration, not only is the overall voter turnout in the US low, but also it is particularly low among youth (Nichols, The Nation, Nov 16, 2010).  The US ranks 138th in worldwide voter participation (Huffington Post, Oct 25, 2012), as shown by the US Census on Voting and Registration (Table 2): 

Table 2: Percentage Turnout in Voting Age Population in the US


Percentage Turnout in Voting Age Population in the US


Year 2008

Year 2010




18-24 years old



21-24 years old



Over 65 years old



           Source: US Census, 2010

According to reports of The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (, April 15, 2010), younger votes in 2010 chose Democratic House candidates over Republicans by a margin go 55 percent  to 42 percent while all voters chose Republicans in House races by 52 percent to 45 percent.  And yet only 16 percent of 18-24 year-olds and 22 percent of 21-24 year-olds voted in 2010, facts that will have enormous material and policy implications for American society for decades to come. 

As an immigrant citizen from South Asia, a registered Democrat, a teacher, and a father, I consider this a national disgrace.  Low youth voter turnout is an issue far more significant and worthy of our attention than other issues that consume the left, such as the fringe politics of the Tea Party.  If young people had voted at least in the numbers they did in 2008 we could have had much stronger legislation for national health care, much needed investment for a 21st century education and for our crumbling infrastructure, and some relief from unemployment.  Indeed that was a great opportunity lost on the part of President Obama’s otherwise formidable electoral organization; in 2008 and 2012 the campaign treated tens of thousands of youth volunteers as foot soldiers scurrying to get the vote out with little to show in-between.  The engaged youth of 2008 could have been harnessed for civic engagement and public scholarship in such issues as nutrition, urban agriculture, preventive health, low-carbon space heating and transport, and sustainable construction.  In the absence of the super-star, young voters in 2010 were no shows while the Tea Party gathered strength.  

Many observers of the 2012 election, including Republicans, have attributed the Democratic victory to a smart campaign and a good ground game.  A very thoughtful editorial in the New York Times (“Beware the Smart Campaign”, Nov 16, 2012) described the technology behind the Obama campaign: using a complex mathematical model, each likely Democratic voter in the swing states was assigned a score which determined what strategy was to be employed in turning out that vote.  The technology seemed to have data on everything including internet browsing habits, consumer purchases, social media footprints, and past voting behavior.  Yet in the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado the President won re-election by the narrowest of margins.  These databases are expensive, and the search algorithms are proprietary.  But we can be sure Republicans will be back in 2014 with significant resources invested in this technology of precise micro-geographic ground games, shifting even more power to well-financed campaigns.  In passing we should note that President Obama’s chief data scientist is a man named Rayid Ghani (a Google search will reveal very little about him) who was previously in supermarket sales promotion.

Estimates place campaign expenditure of both parties around $2 billion based on officially reported data, much of the money spent on one of the most negative campaigns in US history in which pants-on-fire lies, a birth certificate, Big Bird, and an Irish setter named Seamus featured in the plotline.  We should not be surprised when young people tune out Twiddledee and Twiddledum electoral politics with no inspiring vision.

What Lies Beyond the Red and Blue Divide?  Despite the election of a putatively liberal Democrat and the first Black President in US history there has been little talk in the Capitol about what to do about poverty.  President Obama’s reticence to speak about poverty is understandable given how the word "poverty" has been re-coded and inscribed onto the term "Black."  Presidential focus on poverty would have opened him to the accusation that he is only interested in helping other Blacks. The campaigns of both parties were obsessed with the fate of the middle class while showing little interest in poverty, a condition that disproportionately affects Blacks, Latinos, and rural Whites.  After having conducted a Penn State service learning course for ten years titled, "The Philadelphia Field Project," I arrived at a series of conclusions which I shall now state in the form of a practical vision for what may lie beyond the pettiness of Red and Blue America.

First, there is no suburban middle-class solution to the problem of poor people.  For the sake of argument consider $50,000 a year (the median household income in the US) to be a middle-class income.  If half the households that are below the median income were to receive $50,000 a year, the total would exceed $1.5 trillion per year, which is about 11 percent of our national GDP.  Even if that quantity of GDP were to be generated there is little likelihoood that it would go into the pocketbooks of the poor.  The last time we saw a level of income inequality as high as what we have today was in 1929 during the Great Depression.  There are now a large number of books that describe how we got here, why we may stay there, and why it is dangerous (Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality, 2012; Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics, 2010; Krugman, End This Depression Now, 2012). 

In 2011 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 12.3 million unemployed persons, involuntary part-time workers at 8.3 million, those only marginally attached to the labor force at 2.4 million, all adding up to about 23 million people.  In a globalized economy of low wages in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and East Europe, it is difficult to see how we can create 23 million jobs that pay $50,000 a year.  In the past few decades the fastest growing sector of the US economy is the quaternary sector, which includes finance, real estate, communication, and the knowledge industries.  Experience and data tell us that this is not a sector which typically employs the non-college educated poor.  It is clear that there is no middle-class path to prosperity for the millions of poor households in the US.

Second, rather than focusing on a mass migration of the poor to the middle class, I asked the following question: “Is it possible to imagine an economic space which creates jobs directed at the twin tasks of improving people’s quality of life while reducing their cost of living?”  As my second conclusion from the Philadelphia Field Project I wish to claim that the answer to this question is a resounding “Yes. Yes we can.”  We now have enough knowledge in nutrition, urban agriculture, the elimination of chronic disease through diet and exercise, thermodynamic matching of energy sources to end-uses, the building of less auto-centered transport systems, and low-cost effective methods of education.

The literature in these specialized fields is far too numerous for citation here.  The Basic Needs Economy, as I call it, is not an alternative to the existing market economy; it is simply a demand to create spaces within the larger economy where poor people are directly engaged in economic production for their own basic needs first.  Some of our national problems, for example, unemployment and poverty, have no national solutions, but the same problems viewed locally are bursting with solutions.  This is a summary of what I learned while talking and living with the residents of West Philadelphia.

Third, these two conclusions led me to a larger point: we have two large political parties that resemble two incapacitated arctic moose caught in the grip of locked horns (‘gridlocked’ is the term they use in news programs).  In 2010 the number of people between the ages of 15 and 30 was 64.7 million, that is, over 20 percent of our total population.  Significant numbers of them are unemployed, drug addicted, or incarcerated; they also keep away from polls in record numbers.  To me, service learning and public scholarship is an important part of the answer to that problem. Science-learning in engagement is an excellent way to motivate young people to study mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, economics, geography, and sociology.  It will make them better citizens and active agents in their own communities, thus allowing us to solve problems that only appear to be national when they really are not.  In the long-run public scholarship is a far more enduring way to get beyond the great Red/Blue divide that divides our nation.

A Closing Remark:  My exploration of the electoral paradox of Red versus Blue States pointed to the larger themes of uneven regional development, cultural divides, and identity politics of race, class, and sexuality.  Despite the stark contrasts drawn between Red and Blue in a two-billion-dollar election campaign, both parties offered remarkably similar solutions to our persistent economic woes; essentially to grow the economy and expand the middle-class.  I have also discussed the issues surrounding low voter turnout and the inability of our electoral politics to inspire voters, particularly our youth. 

My ten years of experience with research, living and working in a poverty area of West Philadelphia, convinced me that there is no suburban middle class way out of poverty.  So in closing, I wish to pose the following question: “Is there a way to transcend the destructive divisiveness of Red vs. Blue electoral politics, address the serious problem of unemployment and economic insecurity among the poor, and engage the idealism, intelligence, and energy of our non-voting youth?”  My answer to all three of those questions is an optimistic, “Yes” and that answer is what I call “The Basic Needs Economy.” 

It is an economy that can and must co-exist with the larger market economy but will directly address our basic needs of food, health, housing, energy, transport, and literacy so that we can create jobs that improve the quality of our lives while reducing costs of living.  There is a large body of expert knowledge that already exists that shows us how we can do that.  Since large research institutions are massive engines of knowledge production I believe universities such as Penn State have a unique responsibility to pay attention to such arguments and implement pedagogy where public scholarship and service learning are an integral part of the curriculum.   Unfortunately, my ten years of implementing the Philadelphia Field Project at Penn State also convinced me that such a task is not necessarily an easy one.