Stop Blaming Low-Income Voters for Donald Trump’s Victory

The emotional and political repercussions of Donald Trump’s victory as president will take days, months, and years to process. But a pernicious myth has already settled in post-election: that Trump’s victory was fueled by the working class and poor.

The myth that lower-income and working-class voters supported Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was repeated so much this election season that it solidified into conventional wisdom. And it will continue to have dangerous implications for our politics unless confronted.

As exit polls and county data trickle in, it’s become clear that the picture was a little more complicated.

How Did Low-Income People Actually Vote?

Let’s start with the data.  According to exit polls, Hillary Clinton won by 12 points among voters making less than $30,000 a year—53% to Trump’s 41% —and by 9 points among people making between $30,000 and $49,999. Trump’s support was the inverse. He won every group making $50,000 or more—albeit by smaller margins.

This is consistent with analysis of exit polls from the primary, which found that the median household income of Trump voters—about $72,000—was significantly higher than the median household income of the country as a whole—about $56,000. It was also higher than that of the average Clinton and Sanders voters—about $61,000 each.

Even among white voters—who were more likely to support Trump than other groups—Trump did better among middle income white voters than low-income ones. And a closer look reveals that the swing towards Trump was a lot bigger based on education, rather than income.

So Who Voted for Trump?

Trump did perform a lot better than previous Republicans with low-income voters, who historically have supported Democratic candidates by large margins.  For example, Trump improved upon Mitt Romney’s margin with voters making under $30,000 a year by 16 points. But he still lost them—by 12 whole points.

The bulk of Trump’s support didn’t come from people who are most down on their luck. It came from people who are afraid they’re next. In August, research from Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell found that, nationwide, Trump performed worse in towns that lost manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2007, and better in towns that gained them. According to Rothwell, Trump supporters “earn relatively high household incomes and are no less likely to be unemployed or exposed to competition through trade or immigration.”

So what did correspond with Trump support?

Racial resentment among white voters was particularly determinative. And according to another recent study by Ashley Jardina and Spencer Piston, Trump supporters are more likely to hold dehumanizing views of black people. A majority of Trump supporters—52%—see blacks as “less evolved” than whites (a concept thoroughly debunked by science). And 27% of Trump supporters say that African-Americans lack “self-restraint, like animals” compared to 8% of Trump opponents. This is consistent with a study by UCLA’s Michael Tesler, which found that, even during the primaries, voters with more resentment towards blacks and Muslims were more likely to vote for Trump.

What Does This Mean for Policy?

The day after the election, House Speaker Paul Ryan declared a mandate. “What Donald Trump just pulled off was an enormous political feat,” Ryan told a crowd in his hometown of Janesville, WI. “He just earned a mandate. And we now just have that unified Republican government.”

As usual, Ryan is wrong for several reasons. First and most obviously, Donald Trump lost the popular vote. One does not have to question the legitimacy of the electoral college to believe that a narrow delegate win and a popular vote loss does not grant President-elect Trump a political “mandate.”

It’s also important to remember that Trump performed particularly poorly among the very folks he—and the media—claim he represents. And, if Trump’s plan for his first 100 days in office is any indication, they are the people who are likely to bear the brunt of his policies. His tax plan (in addition to drilling a $9.5 trillion hole in the deficit) will mainly benefit the top tax brackets and corporations—exacerbating already record-high inequality. His education plan is designed to let wealthy parents pull their kids out of public schools—fueling educational inequality and segregation. And his repeal of the Affordable Care Act would take away health care from the 20 million who have gained it under the law. This would fall most acutely on low-income people and communities of color, who were least likely to have health care coverage before the law. Even his plan to renege on our climate commitments would directly harm low-income communities, who already suffer from poorer air quality, flood protections, and less access to transportation.

If Trump listened to low-income voters, he’d find that they are more likely to support ambitious policy interventions to alleviate poverty. A recent Morning Consult poll found that a majority of those making less than $50,000 a year would be willing to pay more for Medicare and Social Security. Similar majorities would be willing to fund more aid for women with infants or children, or nutritional programs.

Maybe President Trump—unlike candidate Trump—will listen to them.


First Person

Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Cast Your Ballot

One of the biggest lies about poverty in our country is this: We don’t know what to do to dramatically reduce it.

The truth is, there is no shortage of excellent plans, great scholars, and people living in poverty who can tell you exactly what we need to do—we just elect too many political leaders who don’t give a damn.

This Election Day, you have the power to move our nation towards doing right by people in poverty. Before you touch the screen, pull the lever, or fill out your ballot, here are some questions you might ask yourself to determine the hearts and minds of your candidates:

Does your candidate push stereotypes and myths about people living in poverty and anti-poverty policies, or does s/he stick to the facts?

Does s/he know that nearly 40% of us will spend at least one year in poverty during our working years?

Does your candidate conflate poverty and race, in a manner that stereotypes people of color as poor and urban?

Does s/he speak to the fact that the average food stamp benefit (SNAP) is just $1.41 per person, per meal; only 1 in 4 households that qualify for federal rental assistance actually receives it; and only 23 of every 100 families with children in poverty receives cash assistance (TANF)?

Does s/he fight to protect and strengthen the safety net, recognizing that poverty would be twice as high today—approaching 30%—without it?

Does your candidate accept a status quo that keeps people in poverty? Or do they embrace policies that work?

Does s/he want to raise the minimum wage so that it can lift a family of three out of poverty (just as it could in the late-1960s)?

Does your candidate take paid leave, but fail to fight for the 80% of low-wage workers who can’t take a single paid sick day to care for their families?

Does your candidate accept that most low-income parents can’t afford the child care they need to go to work? Or does s/he have a plan to make quality child care affordable for all families?

Does your candidate understand that people with low incomes often lack the transportation needed to get to good jobs? Does s/he have a plan to create affordable housing where jobs are located and reliable public transit so people can access opportunities?

Does your candidate understand that inequality is rooted in intentional policy choices throughout our nation’s history, and offer an agenda to correct that?

Does your candidate recognize that the average black family would now need 228 years to catch up with the wealth of today’s average white family? Does s/he consider this inequity when formulating key policies around the tax code, homeownership, college affordability, job creation, and more?

Does your candidate recognize the water crisis in Flint is not an isolated incident? And that across the country, the government is investing in and protecting affluent white communities, while exposing low-income communities of color to environmental and health hazards?

Does your candidate recognize mass incarceration as “the new Jim Crow,” which targets black men and communities of color? Does s/he have plans to end the school-to-prison pipeline, promote alternative sentencing and treatment, and ensure that people can successfully reenter society upon release?

Does your candidate speak to the fact that anti-LGBT laws drive economic insecurity for LGBT people, including higher rates of poverty?

Has your candidate ever said anything about addressing rural poverty across the country—from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta, the Alabama Black Belt to the colonias of south Texas, and on Indian reservations? What will s/he do to help reduce rural poverty?

Does your candidate recognize the connection between immigration reform and poverty, and that a path to citizenship would significantly decrease economic exploitation like wage theft, and increase payroll tax revenues by an estimated $33 billion over five years?

Does your candidate accept that women earn only 80 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, or does s/he make it a priority to close the gender pay gap?

Does your candidate have a real plan to help children in low-income families succeed?

Does your candidate accept that our public schools are separate and unequal, with many low-income students forced to share textbooks and work in decrepit classrooms while nearby affluent communities have state-of-the-art facilities? Does s/he have a vigorous plan to make sure our schools reflect that our nation values all children?

Does your candidate accept that many students are simply priced out of a college education, or does s/he have a plan to make college affordable for all?

Does your candidate talk about the fact that 1 in 6 children in America struggle with hunger, and have a detailed plan to address it?

There is nothing inevitable about poverty in America. This Election Day, send that message to all candidates with your vote.


First Person

My Mom, the American Hero, and (Today) the Birthday Girl

For the past few weeks I have been thinking about your journey through life, Mom. I know that there are lots of things I don’t know about you, lots of things that happened in your life before I existed (time existed then?). But what I do know about you plays in my head like one of your favorite movies, Forrest Gump. I imagine you as a child, living in incredible poverty and not knowing when your next meal would be. I imagine you as a preteen in all of your defiance, living with someone who was more of a drill sergeant than a nurturing grandmother. And then I imagine you making a journey that took you far from home, far from any semblance of the life you knew. That’s where our story as a family begins in this country, and where you start to become not only my mother, but my American Hero.

I have always asked you a lot of questions about your arrival in this country. It’s probably because I have a hard time picturing you ever being out of control and out of your element. You moved from the ranch to a sleepy seaside town. From what you’ve told me, you were shocked by all of the white women running around in sports bras and teenagers driving—and subsequently wrecking—brand new cars. Ronald Reagan just became President, Hall & Oates and Blondie were dominating the charts, and you were getting ready to start high school in the U.S. without speaking a lick of English.

People underestimated and dismissed you, but you worked and you worked and when you got tired you worked some more. You mastered the language, passed the California High School Exit Exam (which is no easy feat), and you became the first person in our family to graduate from high school in this country. I can’t imagine the level of pride Grandpa had when you wore that cap and gown and got that piece of paper.

As a young woman, you helped agricultural workers navigate the maze that is the naturalization process, all the while your own status as a resident was hanging in the balance. You sat in a room and translated for men with hands that were rough from working in the fields, across the table from the same force of people who could have detained you. (How brave are you, lady? Seriously.) You went to trade school, got some business savvy, and started establishing your independence. You got a car, you got your own studio, you got a perm, and you started living your best early ’90s life. I imagine you spending these years dressed in some sort of spandex awesomeness in the club, dancing to Bell Biv Devoe and Janet Jackson.

And then yours truly came along. You became a single mom, and your biggest point of pride in my early days was being able to take care of both of us without financial backing from anyone else. We had each other, we had our one-bedroom apartment, and we had our health. You raised me in a community of other strong women, and I never knew what it felt like to be hungry or unloved.

I remember being afraid of you because you seemed so serious. Now I understand that you were just tired—tired from working so much, tired from worrying about money, tired from being two parents in one to a rambunctious kid who talked a lot and watched the news too much.

That unfaltering hustle you have, that you’ve always had, pushed us into a new tax bracket. You found time when you weren’t working to study for the citizenship test, and in 2000 you became an American citizen. We moved out of the apartment and you bought your first home, right down the street from the brand new high school that was being constructed in San Marcos. For the first few months the house was full of dust from contractors sculpting the fixer-upper into your vision. I can still see you standing in the middle of our new living room, surrounded by furniture covered in sheets, describing paint colors and granite countertops. You looked so proud.

For the first time in my life, I had my own room. I still slept with you for the first three months because I didn’t know any other way. But eventually, I got used to having a space of my own to clutter (I’m really sorry about that).

You held my hand when I came out at age 16. You tried to protect me from the homophobia and rejection that came with that, whether it was from California residents under Proposition 8 or our own family members. You made sure I graduated from high school, even after my grades started slipping. You helped me finance my college education, and you were there when I was the last student to cross that stage. My cap had your high school portrait pasted on it, and the message “this is for you, Mom.” And it was. That degree is yours just as much as it is mine.

I left the nest and moved across the country. You have endured the phone calls when I droned on and on about politics, and always responded matter-of-factly: “I am not political.” That was before.

It was before the national conversation turned on our family. Before the vitriol was about people like Grandpa, Grandma, and your siblings. Before the twin monsters of ignorance and xenophobia gnashed their teeth at you, my idol.

The surge of hatred towards immigrants has angered me. And it has angered you too.

For a year now, you have been calling to tell me about polling you heard about, and about PBS specials on the candidates you watched. You’ve been sharing stories I’ve never heard before about being undocumented, about being a woman of color in this country, about “becoming” an American. We FaceTimed when you made your first-ever campaign contribution, 16 years after you became a citizen (I’m sorry you keep getting spammed).

You are the building block of this country

In 50 years you made it out of abject poverty, to the U.S., to independence, then to comfort. You accomplished more in half a lifetime than most people could in centuries. Now people are trying to argue that you aren’t a real American, but what they don’t realize is that you are the building block of this country. You embody what this country has sought since its establishment: exceptionalism.

So on this, your day of birth, I wish you a restful day full of flowers, Godiva chocolates, and love. I have so much to thank you for, Mom. Thank you for showing me what real strength is. Thank you for your patience. Thank you for being a hesitant audience to hours of Lady Gaga and RuPaul’s Drag Race, for your grace and dignity, and for being a light in the lives of all of the people who have known you. And thank you for being political. You are my hero.

A modified version of this post originally appeared on the Human Development Project.



Public Housing Can Be Good for Kids. But There Isn’t Enough of It.

Finish this sentence: “Children who grow up in public housing…”

Whatever your political leanings, you probably didn’t come up with “…do better in life than their peers who didn’t.” But according to a recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), it’s true. The authors compared siblings who spent different amounts of time in public housing, and found that the children who spent more time in the projects had higher earnings and a lower chance of being incarcerated. Kids got a similar benefit when their families received vouchers to help them pay the rent at a private apartment.

The point, of course, is not that public housing is an ideal place to spend a childhood. It’s that the alternatives can be much worse.

In my city, Nashua, New Hampshire, one of those alternatives is the Country Barn Motel and Campground. It’s an old house and barn that the owners turned into a bunch of individual rooms, plus some trailers on blocks. Everything’s painted a rustic brown, and when I visited—a week before Halloween—it was decorated with fake cobwebs.

It’s a nice place in a lot of ways. Kids ride bikes around the quiet, wooded grounds, and neighbors volunteer to babysit for each other. But many of the families here are facing the kinds of stress that can have troubling long-term consequences for kids.

Inside one door, guarded by three carved pumpkins, Crystal and Jimmy live with their baby, five-year-old son, and three-year-old daughter in a single room. There are two beds, a TV, a refrigerator, and a stove—only one of the electric burners works—and that’s about it. They’ve been here for about five months. While I talked with the adults, the older kids showed off their gymnastic moves, mostly ignoring a cartoon playing on the TV.

“We’re trying to save money for a place, but everywhere’s expensive,” Jimmy said.

As of 2012, there were around 6.5 million U.S. households waiting for either a spot in public housing or a housing voucher.

Before moving here, the family lived with Jimmy’s stepmom. But, between her five kids and their three, squeezing everyone into a three-bedroom apartment didn’t work for long. Crystal and Jimmy have been on a wait list for public housing for two years, but their number hasn’t come up. Researchers who study housing policy have found that’s not terribly unusual. As of 2012, there were around 6.5 million U.S. households waiting for either a spot in public housing or a housing voucher.

Crystal and Jimmy do get government help with their rent, but it’s through a city program that’s supposed to be a short-term emergency backstop. They worry that they could lose that assistance any day now. Meanwhile, Jimmy said, living at the motel is tough on the kids.

“Just putting them to bed, everything’s extra hard,” Jimmy said. “We’re so on top of each other. If one of them’s awake, they’re all awake.”

The U.S. Department of Education warns that moving around a lot, or living in temporary situations like motels or doubling up with other families, tends to hurt children’s school achievement and emotional development. One recent, randomized study in New York City found that families that don’t get help with housing are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety compared with those that move to new, subsidized housing. That repeated exposure to acute stress might help explain the long-term effects on kids’ incomes and incarceration rates that the new NBER paper found—the stability matters.

David Evans lives with his girlfriend and their three kids, including a newborn baby, in one of the trailers at the Country Barn. It’s $225 a week—cheaper than living inside the motel—but it only comes with a hot plate for cooking, and you have to use a shared bathroom in a separate building. Between his paycheck from a warehouse job and his girlfriend’s disability benefit, they can only afford rent, food, and clothes for the kids. An apartment with a monthly rent might be cheaper, but they’d have to save up for the security deposit.

Things were easier when the family got part of their rent through a federal Section 8 voucher. But then his girlfriend got into a dispute with her family, who had control over her Social Security checks. Ultimately, David and his girlfriend lost access to the checks, which made it impossible to pay their rent. They were evicted—which meant permanently losing their eligibility for the voucher.

“Telling my kids we have to go live in a trailer, that’ll break you down,” Evans said.

Evans is a former heroin addict, clean three years. He’s used to working hard at seeing the bright side of things. But he said living in a 200-square foot trailer is hard on the whole family, particularly his eight-year-old stepdaughter.

“She gets edgy, so she has a little bit of an attitude,” he said.

In fact, the girl has been lobbying her mother to go live with her biological dad, who has been in and out of jail and recently got back in touch after years out of her life.

“She’s even like ‘Mommy, it’s just until you get an apartment,’” Evans said. That’s hard on his girlfriend, but he sees where the girl is coming from. “I don’t want to be here either.”

Unlike a lot of people at the Country Barn, Angela Winslow said she really likes it here. She’s fixed up her room in the motel with country-style knick-knacks and some of her own furniture. But she may not be able to stay long. When she moved in two and a half months ago, she had custody of her seven-year-old grandson—so she was able to get some help from the local welfare office.

“He’s such a great kid,” she said. “I had him since he was 12 months old.”

Recently, Winslow’s daughter regained custody of the boy. Winslow doesn’t think that’s a good situation for him—she isn’t crazy about some of her daughter’s life choices—but she’s been happy to at least care for him on the weekends when her daughter drops him off.

Now, though, since she’s no longer his legal guardian, she’s liable to lose her housing assistance, health insurance, and food stamps. If she can’t stay at the Country Barn, Winslow said she’ll move in with her other daughter. They get along well, but she’ll have to sleep on the couch or a blow-up mattress. That will complicate her weekends with her grandson, and it might not be the best situation for her and her daughter either.

“She’s a night owl,” she said. “I’m not.”

The thing is, even if getting help paying for housing would benefit Angela Winslow’s grandson, and David Evan’s three children, and Crystal and Jimmy’s kids—and all the rest of the kids who’ve spent time at the Country Barn—there isn’t enough funding for it. The U.S. hasn’t built much public housing since the 1990s, and it has demolished some of what it used to have. Housing vouchers aren’t filling the gap, since only 1 in 4 households that qualifies for a housing voucher actually gets one. Meanwhile, the federal government spends almost twice as much on mortgage interest tax deductions, which overwhelmingly go to the wealthy, as it does helping people with rent.

Winslow said her worries about losing her room, along with everything else that’s happened in her life over the past few months, have gotten her feeling kind of depressed. She’s hoping her case worker returns her call about staying in the hotel soon.

“If they give me the news they’ll help me, then of course I’ll stay here,” she said.


“I’ll just figure it out.”


First Person

The Cost of Coming Out in College

After two years of gradually coming out to friends and family, three weeks ago I finally proclaimed that “I’m here, and I’m queer,” to everyone on social media. Being painfully millennial, I made an extra effort to ensure that my Facebook status was just right. It was the most public part of my coming out process, and I wanted to strike the right balance between conveying my pride in being an out, queer woman and explaining why I had kept my orientation a secret for so long.

I received, to put it mildly, a warm reception. My friends shared their support in the comments, and I even got a share and a big shout-out from my mom, who voiced her clear and unconditional love and support.

My friend Julius, a sophomore at Wake Forest University, was not as lucky. A few weeks ago, he mentioned that his parents cut him off during his coming out process. His tone was casual, so we moved along with our conversation about whatever was going on in the queer universe that day, but he’s mentioned since then that finances have been tough. Julius’s job is a work study position that limits him to working a few hours per week, so it’ll be hard for him to make ends meet on his own.

Fortunately, Wake Forest has resources for students like Julius. School administrators helped him file as an independent so that he could apply for financial aid on his own and stay enrolled in the university. There were a lot of hoops to jump through—and he’ll have more student debt as a result—but it worked out in the end.

Most colleges and universities do not offer the type of support that Julius received. According to Campus Pride only 7% of campuses have institutional support for LGBT students, which leaves many students who are rejected by their families to fend for themselves during complicated legal and financial proceedings. Julius noted that in order to accomplish his dependency override, he needed three documents of support—one of which had to be from a certified counselor. He will also have to write a statement detailing the painful events leading up to his financial independence every year when he reapplies for his financial aid package.

Some students fare much worse, and are ultimately forced to drop out. Harlan Mitchell, a 21-year-old queer person living in Knoxville, had to leave the University of Tennessee after he fled his abusive home last year. “It’s really kind of difficult to get a degree, to get a good job, [and] to do all the things to support yourself financially,” Mitchell said. For a few months, he slept on friends’ couches while he saved money he earned at his retail job. If he hadn’t been able to rely on friends, he says he isn’t sure where he would have gone next.

This is not a fringe issue.

For queer youth, this is not a fringe issue—half of us experience a negative reaction from our parents when we come out. Without financial independence, we’re particularly vulnerable—whether it’s to increased debt, the inability to complete our education, or homelessness. This follows us into adulthood, with the potential to impact our earnings and our ability to hold successful jobs. Add in the fact that it’s legal to fire and evict LGBT people because of their identity in most states, and it becomes easier to understand why the number of LGBT people who reported feeling as though they are struggling financially is up by a margin of 10% despite improvements in the economy as a whole.

The reality is, coming out is a financial privilege that not everyone can afford. Ultimately, that limits the economic mobility of queer people—it creates a space in which not all of us are free to be who we feel we are, and who we want to be.