Poor, Jobless, and Getting out the Vote

Labor hopes to make the unemployed their own political interest group.

By Michelle Chen Aug 19, 2010

With nearly one in ten American workers unable to find a job, the unemployed are becoming their own political interest group. The AFL-CIO has launched a campaign to mobilize unemployed voters across the country, hoping to turn out the "jobless vote" this November and bolster pro-labor Democrats at the polls. But will the campaign actually reach out to the chronically unemployed, those who face entrenched employment barriers like concentrated urban poverty and gender discrimination? Long-term unemployment is practically an institution in many communities of color, and the latest figures suggest that the crisis is increasingly stratified by gender as well as race. Women of color, as well as mothers who head families (essentially, single moms), are suffering their worst unemployment rates in years. Recently, Black and Latina women’s unemployment rates ticked up even as unemployment fell slightly among Black and Latino men. Other research reveals low voter participation among the unemployed and low-income people generally. In 2008, only about half of those making less than $20,000 voted, compared with around 90 percent of those earning above $100,000. And a poll analysis by Nate Silver suggests that extraordinarily high voter apathy in Black America. So we might conclude that voter turnout among unemployed people of color, especially women, will lag this November. But economic statistics alone don’t tell the whole story. Pew has uncovered an odd, and refreshing, breakthrough in the 2008 election:

The voter turnout rate among eligible black female voters increased 5.1 percentage points, from 63.7% in 2004 to 68.8% in 2008. Overall, among all racial, ethnic and gender groups, black women had the highest voter turnout rate in November’s election — a first.

So, 2008 brought a burst of voter action in a group that’s been economically marginalized throughout history, not to mention routinely smeared by the right’s racial venom. To the extent that voter turnout says anything about political engagement, Black women made themselves heard in 2008–perhaps regaining some of the political visibility they’d lost since the days of civil rights protests and the welfare rights movement. As the AFL-CIO’s organizers (operating through the union’s grassroots arm, Working America) get ready to knock on doors and convince laid-off auto workers and disgruntled construction contractors that their vote might actually mean something, they ought to look closely at the less visible facets of the jobless voting bloc. The groups that were mobilized by Obama fever in 2008 will almost certainly be less enthusiastic this time around, but they may have just as much at stake in terms of holding legislators accountable for a foundering economy and political spinelessness in Congress. Meanwhile, the disintegration of ACORN’s vast mobilization network means there’s a vacuum in the traditional infrastructure for mobilizing voters in communities of color. If the AFL-CIO’s goal is to channel working people’s economic frustrations into the ballot box, they’ll find among women of color plenty of outrage waiting to be tapped.