Sunday, March 19, 2017

Non-voters: Wyoming's Majority Party

What do Colin Kaepernik and General David Petraeus have in common? One is a quarterback, the other a General. One takes a knee during the national anthem. The other doesn’t. What they have in common is that neither voted in the last election. They were not alone. Ninety-three million of their fellow Americans stayed away from polling places in November.

Wyoming is no exception. If you think Republicans are the majority in Wyoming, you’d be in error. The majority are those who, though eligible to vote, don’t even bother to even register.

When that many voters stay away from the polls, it makes a profound statement about our political system. “If there isn’t someone or something worth voting for, why bother?”

Don’t get me wrong. Voting matters. I’ve always voted. I highly recommend it. But if that’s the basket in which you place all your eggs, disappointment will be your constant companion.

Voting without being engaged in politics and government is like praying without using the voice, hands and feet God gave you, little more than wishful thinking. For progressives and others concerned about a more just state, calling yourself a Democrat or a Republican and hoping for the best doesn’t even rise to the level of wishful thinking.  

Take for example the basic needs of Wyoming’s people; healthcare, housing, and food security. If you are one of those who actually votes in this state, you elected people who exhibit little interest, even hostility toward meeting these needs. Not only did they reject healthcare for low-income working families, they rejected millions for unemployment benefits, eliminated literacy centers and tax benefits for the impoverished elderly and others, cut energy assistance and eliminated dental assistance for the low-income elderly.

Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you,” and the Wyoming legislature seems determined to make certain they are.

The one-time Kids Count Director Marc Homer knows what the data said even before the current economic bust. One of five Wyoming children lives in homes where parental earnings fall below the federal poverty level despite working long hours and multiple jobs. Politicians the voters choose are aware that those number exceed 50% when there is no father in the home. Yet they do nothing to bridge the gender-wage gap that worsens the lives of thousands of Wyoming women.

The National Center for Children in Poverty calculates that it takes twice the federal poverty threshold to meet a family’s basic needs. Thirty-six percent of Wyoming’s children live below that level.

Members of the “elected class” know that in order to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment, Wyoming wage earners must earn at least $14.98 per hour to afford the rent. Still they refuse to raise the minimum wage, which is currently less than what the Pharaoh paid the Israelite slaves.

These grim statistics are nurtured by Wyoming’s two-party system, made up of a Democratic Party without the power to do much and a Republican Party that won’t. This session was an example. The Democrats proposed a modest increase in the minimum wage. The Republicans countered by proposing the state wage be hiked to the federal level. Then they defeated that.

This year the minimum wage was increased in 21 other states because citizens took the matter into their own hands when their political parties and legislators, like ours, failed them.

Wyoming families aren’t asking much; a livable-wage job, affordable healthcare and housing, their kids in good schools, and a secure retirement.

They will need to discard the old paradigm, which offers only Democrats and Republicans. Just as Minnesota’s Farm Labor Party emerged from economic hardship, perhaps a Wyoming Children and Families Party could emerge from economic hardships suffered here. Maybe there are enough people who care about children and families to organize around a reason to vote. First stop? A ballot measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Watch then who makes voting a priority. Watch then to see who starts to listen to children and families.

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