The political rhetoric of the day seems to divide American voters into two categories, the "Wealthy" and the "Middle Class." We're not reading much about the political views of the "Income Challenged." I'm a senior Vermonter, living, with my fingers crossed, very slightly above the poverty level, a new Social Security and Medicare recipient. What do we "income challenged" voters think?
In the language of cities, Burlington, Vermont (population in July 2007: 38,531) is just a small dot on the map. In the greater Burlington area, there are quite a lot of senior voters whose lives are constrained and defined by external programs e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Fuel Oil Assistance, Public Housing, the Food Shelf, and COTS, the shelter for the homeless. I inquired of a few people I'd met in Burlington when I was an older worker specialist with the federal Title V Senior Community Service Employment Program, (SCSEP) the only federal employment training program for seniors.
Eugenia Evans, a native Vermonter, had just driven her 48-year-old disabled veteran son from dialysis in Burlington to her trailer in Huntington, a twenty-five minutes ride from the hospital, something she does every other day. "Genie," is eighty but could easily pass for seventy. At 78, she chose the SCSEP program to earn property tax money so she could maintain a home for her son. Well, of course she was planning to vote. But she didn't see any options for President. She and her son depend on social security and VA benefits. McCain's plan for social security compared to Obama's? Well, she didn't know much about it. "You just can't trust the news or what they say on television." About her other son, now a paraplegic--not much change. Bernie had helped with getting some health care and housing. Bernie = Senator Bernie Sanders, the Patron Saint/ Court of Last Resort of older and low income Vermont folks and many SCSEP clients. "Course Bernie is a Socialist," she added.
I mentioned that McCain hadn't signed on to some of the legislation which provided benefits for Vets that Obama had strongly supported. How did I know what McCain did? Well, I said, you can go online and see which laws each one of them voted for or against. "My niece got me a laptop. Guess I could google it. Now I don't know who I'm going to vote for. "
The Older Americans Act of 1965, of which SCSEP is a part, states, "... it is the joint and several duty and responsibility of the governments of the United States...to assist our older people to secure equal opportunity to the full and free enjoyment ...An adequate income in retirement in accordance with the American standard of living...Opportunity for employment with no discriminatory personnel practices because of age... Retirement in health, honor, dignity--after years of contribution to the economy."
Sharon Kron, 60, is a transplanted Vermonter. She made a date with me to drive her to Democratic headquarters, six blocks away from where she lives. She needed to take the Freeman's Oath in person, a Vermont requirement. She's planning on voting by absentee ballot from her tiny apartment in subsidized housing. She's always had a prosthethic, but it took a lot of practice with a walker to get used to this new lighter weight one; she remembers skipping rope, climbing trees and dancing with a wooden peg leg as a child. Daughter of a Brooklyn cab driver, Sharon worked as a secretary until she quit to care for her aging parents, nursing them through cancer and Alzheimer's till their deaths.
Meantime, the technology of offices changed, leaving her behind. VT Voc Rehab and SCSEP transitioned her to computers, however, she's still unemployed. Her secretarial work wasn't recent enough to count for Social Security, so she lives on SSI and ten dollars a month of food stamps. She depends on her third hand Windows 98 computer to bring politics and the rest of the world to her. Her choice of Obama reflects her concern for those who have more needs than she.
The VT Department of Aging and Disability currently estimates the number of folks over sixty at more than 120,000. About ten percent are below 125% of the federal poverty limit. The number of elderly and eligible poor have always exceeded the number of training slots in the SCSEP program. But it's a lot of potential low-income senior voters.
The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP,) a field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, is the only refugee resettlement agency in Vermont. Judy Scott, their Executive Director, warns that it will be difficult to interview older New Americans, as the repressive regimes they escaped generally left them with a fear of openly expressing a political opinion. Loan Nguyen, a former elder worker there, now a financial officer, said that few of the Vietnamese elders had been able to learn English. They got their political news, through SBTN (Saigon Broadcasting Television Network) on Direct TV, the 24 hour Vietnamese language channel serving the Vietnamese diaspora. No one would talk to me, she said, even if she interpreted. They would be afraid. She excused herself (we were on the phone) and when she returned, she answered the questions I probably would not have asked. I remembered that she herself had lived with an elderly mother who didn't speak English. "People will vote for McCain," she pronounced. "He has been in Vietnam before. McCain help get President Reagan to let refugees come to the United States. Obama has color. Is a problem."
Karen Judge, lives in subsidized housing in a town in the greater Burlington area better known for its wealth. She's almost sixty, and just recently got SSDI. She had obtained hearing aids and a computer through Voc Rehab. Her family, she says, has always voted Republican. "Except for Kennedy. Dad voted for Kennedy." But she's been planning to vote for McCain, who she hears about on the Christian broadcasting radio station, her main source of news.
I ask her about Obama. "Well, he stands for abortion." I mention that McCain himself favors abortion in cases of rape or incest, even though Sarah Palin does not. I ask her if she thinks young girls who are sexually violated by a relative ought to have babies. "Well, maybe not children, they shouldn't have babies." I asked," How old a child ought to be allowed not to have a child? Eighteen, said Karen.
Thé Singer, 74, talks about her parents, naturalized Americans, who had given up their French citizenship eight years after they'd arrived. "My parents never missed an opportunity to vote. My dad voted Democratic and my mother voted Republican. Of course I'm registered to vote; I've always voted."
A Social Security recipient and working woman, Thé has lived in an older South Burlington condo for twenty five years. After reappraisal, taxes went up, so she was job hunting at 71. Recently, at a VT Department of Labor job fair just for seniors, she met her current employer, a provider of non-medical household help for the elderly. "I think Obama will win, "she says confidently. " I watch the news; I usually switch back and forth between Jim Lehrer (PBS) and the other news. But she had decided on her candidate after reading Obama's book, "Dreams From My Father" and a Time Magazine article a year and a half ago.
There seems to be a lack of perceived connection for some of these voters between their lived experience and the candidates' positions and the party's practices. Voting choices seem to be more like chaos theory than enlightened self-interest.
But not to vote--that would be unthinkable.