Impoverished democracy: Economic inequality, residential segregation, and the decline of political participation

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Inequality, Civic engagement, Segregation, Voter turnout, Political participation, Voluntary associations

Subject Categories

American Politics | Inequality and Stratification | Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology


Civic engagement, particularly voter turnout, has declined as economic inequality and economic residential segregation have increased. The participation gap among economic classes has also increased, and significant changes have occurred within communities and neighborhoods as a result of suburbanization, deindustrialization, and urban renewal. Additionally, the last decade has seen increased concern about the state of civil society, yet the relationship among these trends remains largely understudied. This dissertation examines how increasing economic inequality and residential segregation combine to affect political mobilization and voter turnout among low-income American citizens.

I hypothesize that increasing poverty within increasing economic segregation results in declining voter participation in segregated impoverished communities. Further, I suspect that rising economic segregation alters civic and political mobilization by institutions, such as voluntary associations, churches, and political parties and candidates, in highly segregated neighborhoods, exacerbating declining participation in low-income neighborhoods and strong participation in wealthy areas. If true, this would create a balance of political power that is skewed not only to individuals with more economic resources but to entire neighborhoods with more economic resources.

To examine these hypotheses, both quantitative and qualitative research methods are employed, drawing on a wide range of data and primary source material, including: the Neighborhood Change Database, a nationwide database containing socio-economic and demographic variables from 1970 to 2000, to which was added an indicator of economic segregation; voter turnout data gathered from eight case-study neighborhoods in four case-study cities; open-ended interviews conducted with local civic, religious, and elected leaders from each case-study city and neighborhood; and newspaper articles and city records collected in local archives.

My core findings are that increasing economic inequality and segregation since 1970 have contributed to the decline of voter participation in segregated low-income neighborhoods and the simultaneous increase of voter participation in segregated affluent neighborhoods. While the demographic composition of neighborhoods has some bearing on these trends, I also find that the ability and efficacy of mobilizing institutions to promote political engagement in highly segregated high-poverty neighborhoods have declined, while mobilizing institutions in segregated prosperous neighborhoods remain active.

This suggests that the commonly accepted notion that low-income citizens do not vote because of their individual economic status misses a significant point: low-income citizens are increasingly finding themselves living more exclusively with other low-income citizens, which means that individual disincentives for voting due to economic status are enhanced by an impoverished neighborhood context and social interactions with similarly disempowered citizens. As a result, voter turnout in segregated impoverished communities declines across all types of elections--national and local. This understudied and complex dynamic of increasing economic segregation and declining political participation and mobilization suggests a vicious cycle of political behavior and public policy, one in which the capacity of low-income Americans to hold elected representatives accountable and to shape the policy agenda may be severely diminished. This may subsequently result in policies that neglect entire communities and perpetuate a cycle of economic inequality, segregation, and loss of political voice.


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