With one in seven Americans projected to live in poverty during 2021, the gap between the haves and have-nots has only grown during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the forefront of this disparity, with the majority of Americans in favor, are calls to raise the national minimum wage.
Let’s examine how this impacts the status quo. Currently, 21 states maintain the federal minimum of $7.25 paid per hour. All others have surpassed this federal minimum through their own state minimum wage legislation.
Most disparaging is the state of Mississippi. It has both the highest poverty rate of any state in the U.S., sitting at 19.6%, and one of the highest rates of individuals without health insurance at 13%. Additionally, Mississippi is the state with the highest concentration of cashiers, a common minimum wage job.
Surveys show that 70% of voters in Mississippi favor raising the minimum wage, and the majority advocate increasing Medicare coverage as a means to replace or compete with the private sector. It seems as though we have found a degree of pluralism through these surveys, where the majority of individuals irrespective of differences favor social safety nets, that could ultimately aid in making these policies tangible. However, despite the public’s approval of progressive policy, Mississippi still went red for former President Donald Trump during the 2020 election and remains governed by a Republican state trifecta.
Many of the state’s elected representatives specifically disregard these calls to increase wages and establish social safety nets. They say so themselves. Consider what’s written on Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith’s website pertaining to the FY2021 Budget Resolution motion for wage increase: “‘It’s hard to understand how anyone believes that in an economic downturn, the best thing to do is place new burdens on small businesses and accelerate job losses,’ said Hyde-Smith, who voted for a Republican amendment to prohibit the increase of the federal minimum wage during a global pandemic.” Republican Senator Roger Wicker has a similar tone-deaf sentiment.
Both senators and respective Republican representatives hold views similar to the party platform for both wage increases and the minimization of the government’s role in health-care accessibility, indicating that the pluralism we previously recognized among citizens is most likely confounded by some other variable. Considering that these are the individuals elected by the constituency, and consequently the popular policy is not pushed through, what is the confounding action?
For one, Mississippi politics are rampant with voter suppression. Most notable was the state’s handling of voting amidst the pandemic, only extending standing absentee rules to individuals “under physician-imposed quarantine, or those who are caring for a dependent who is under a physician-imposed quarantine, due to COVID-19.”
Additionally, Mississippi upholds laws and regulations disenfranchising individuals affected by incarceration. This effectively disenfranchises 10.55% of voting age Mississippians and 15.96% of the Black population specifically, the third-highest percentage in the nation. To put this in a national perspective, disenfranchisement for felony reasons lies at 2.3% for the general voter population and at 6.2% among Black Americans.
We see that these portions of disenfranchised and suppressed voters could certainly contribute to why the Republican trifecta prevails. But an interesting question remains: Why are poor white people also voting Republican?
When we consider the race and identity of actual individuals serving in the Mississippi statehouse, the plot further thickens. There is a clear divide seen in Mississippi between race and party affiliation. In the state Senate, of the 16 Democrats presiding, two are white. Of the 26 Republicans, all are white.
I find this specific case fascinating. In a state where poverty is rampant, a platform including progressive policy is rejected by the majority, despite the majority (for the most part) agreeing with individual social nets, a progressive policy idea.
And I strongly feel this is something we shouldn’t skim over. The generalized poor white folk must have something to antagonize and blame for their state. Most perceptible is perhaps the demonization of migrant workers by the Trump administration, which he stated directly: “Working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal immigration: reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools, hospitals that are so crowded you can’t get in, increased crime and a depleted social safety net.”
When we come to terms with some of the rhetoric central to this shift in conservative politics, the tactics used by the party to harness struggle and project it towards others become more apparent. The use of religion as a political platform has also been immensely important for the Republican Party’s survival with evangelical Christians being a reliable, albeit polarizing, voter block. After all, we do seem to be both a “nation under God” yet also do our best to separate church and state.
It’s all a matter of deflection. The rhetoric implies, “You aren’t poor because of the system we’ve built, rather because of some other poor group who is also burdened by the same system.” But what goes unrealized is that there is a plurality of class struggle experienced by both groups and vested interests.
This lack of pluralism is seen in the case of Mississippi. Despite the prevalent issues of poverty and health-care coverage in all of Mississippi, party lines are so racialized and distinct that these issues seem to be ignored when casting a ballot. Campaigning is “like playing whack-a-mole,” in the words of Brannon Miller, a Mississippi political strategist. Widely recognized by campaigners is that appealing to Black votes loses white votes and vice versa. In other words, these polarized ideologies have failed in finding an effective means of relating to both blocks of voters in Mississippi.
And the question remains, in an America that is deeply polarized and with race relations as tense as ever, is it even possible for us to find plurality?
Anju Felix is a dual-degree sophomore from Port Murray, N.J. studying Neuroscience, Political Science and Harp Performance.