Upward Mobility Alters Minority Priorities

THOUGH they come from the hard-core Democratic roots of Southern black working class families, Ralph Larry Warren and his wife Phebie Clyburn-Warren found it easy to hop on the Republican bandwagon of the 1980s.

As they became engrossed in making his own criminal law practice succeed and getting her day-care business off the ground, the Warrens - who live in Prince George's County, Md., the nation's most affluent black suburb - weren't as concerned with racial issues as they were with tax and regulatory policy.

Like most middle-class Americans eager for less taxes and less government interference, they voted for Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Similarly, this election season, the Warrens are doing what many other middle-class suburbanites are doing: wrestling with the meaning of George Bush's broken tax pledge and leaning seriously toward voting Democratic.

Upward mobility has made the politics of many minority families more like those of the white, suburban middle-class majority, political analysts say.

Statistics show steady gains in minority affluence, says William O'Hare, director of the Population and Policy Research Program at the University of Louisville.

Minorities now constitute 18.5 percent of all households earning more than $25,000 a year, he says. In 1979, 10 percent of black households earned more than $50,000 a year, compared with 13 percent in 1989.

Asian households earning that amount rose from 27 percent to 35 percent in the same period.

Hispanic households in that category rose from 12 percent to 16 percent during those 10 years.

These middle-class minorities are largely expected to vote like most suburbanites, who for the first time will cast the majority of votes in a presidential election, says political analyst William Schneider.

"When you become middle class you become a homeowner, a property owner, someone aspiring to send your kids to good schools and college and you're keenly interested in property taxes and the quality of schools ... you become very conservative in lots of ways," says Robert Fullinwider, senior research scholar at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

Like the Poles, Irish, Jews, and Italians before them, he says, today's minorities "follow the American dream, and their middle-classness is more important than ethnic roots in voting."

Indeed, the Warrens, who were the first in their families to go to college - and vote Republican - describe how they have become "independent" voters.

"After you've acquired a few things and some affluence, your outlook changes on things like property and income tax, tax shelters and passing a certain amount of wealth down to your children," says Mr. Warren, who has three school-age children. "It may sound like the kind of thing Republicans have a monopoly on."

"Once I got into my own business, I focused more on exactly where my dollar was going. I became aware of things like taxes and assessments," concurs Ms. Clyburn-Warren.

As she and Mr. Warren lean toward a Clinton vote in November, she says that health care is her "biggest concern."

She pays for insurance for herself and three employees and has had numerous rate increases. Though she loathes government interference, she'll vote for Clinton because she thinks he would be more likely than Bush to cut charges by doctors and insurance companies.

The Warrens both say they have had to balance the economic benefits the Republican Party offers with the perception that it is less a socially egalitarian party than the Democratic Party.

The GOP "family values" rhetoric, they say, strikes chords of social exclusion that make the Warrens, who directly benefited from the Great Society civil-rights programs of the 1960s, uncomfortable.

The Warrens' sensitivity to racial prejudice illustrates the key difference between blacks in the middle class and other minorities, say political analysts.

This is perhaps the main reason that 90 percent of blacks vote Democratic in national elections, analysts say.

Meanwhile, Hispanic and Asian middle-class voters are more likely to parallel closely their white counterparts.

In California, for example, a study of Latinos moving up from poorer sections of East Los Angeles to more suburban middle-class neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley found them to be twice as likely to re-register to vote as Republicans than those who stay in the poorer areas, says Bruce Cain, associate director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and a researcher in that study.

"In the Asian community, [voting patterns among] working class versus middle class is not nearly as important as across nationalities," says Mr. Cain.

The very fact that the Warrens, over the years, have found reasons to swing independently, like their white suburban counterparts, between Republican and Democratic candidates is an indication of the opportunities both political parties will have to appeal to increasingly affluent minorities, say analysts.

As minorities reach a 30 percent share of the population by the year 2000, traditional Democratic and Republican voters "won't be a constant playing field," says David Bositis, senior research assistant at the Joint Center for Political Studies, a black think tank.

"It won't be just a question of [middle-class minorities] changing, but the parties changing and how they will respond to take advantage [of increasing numbers of minorities]."

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