EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece kicks off a campaign at the website TalkPoverty.org in which advocates and people struggling to make ends meet will ask 2016 presidential candidates about how they would significantly reduce poverty and inequality in this country. This campaign builds upon The Nation’s #TalkPoverty campaign, which sought to achieve a substantive conversation about poverty in the 2012 elections. We encourage you to ask questions of the candidates and join the conversation on Twitter using #talkpoverty.
Millions of American families are working multiple jobs to make ends meet but are still living paycheck to paycheck.
Millions more who are undocumented can’t plan for their futures because they fear la migra (the immigration police) will haul them and their loved ones away at any time.
And still others, who have served often excessive sentences for past transgressions struggle to find work when they are released from prison.
In total, about 106 million people live on the brink, fighting to overcome the barriers to success that keep them living in marginalized communities or in such chaos that financial stability is out of reach.
Yet what are the chances that their struggles will be addressed in any meaningful way during the first Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox News on Thursday?
What are the chances the Fox News moderators will ask candidates about their agenda to address the needs of neighborhoods facing high unemployment and low wages?
What is the likelihood that the candidates will be asked to outline plans to improve the lives of the working families who live in forgotten communities where there is little investment in infrastructure and jobs?
If the most recent presidential elections are any indication, the chances that these issues will be raised are slim to none. While there was plenty of rhetoric about the dwindling middle class, the last presidential election was noticeably devoid of any references to Americans living in poverty. In fact, The Nation reported that from 2008 to 2012, at least five consecutive presidential or vice presidential debates went without a single question about poverty.
This first debate of the 2016 election is an opportunity for the leading Republican candidates to go on the record about the issues that matter most to working families.
So in an effort to help the candidates and the Fox team find their way, here’s a roadmap. We asked four Americans struggling to make ends meet about what they want to hear on Thursday:
Rachael Collyer, 22, Cleveland Heights, Ohio:
Rachael graduated from The Ohio State University with a major in Spanish and English. She works as a bartender with a fluctuating income that on a good day nets up to $14 an hour and on soft days earns her the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
She also has almost $26,000 in student loan debt.
Rachael can’t afford her own apartment, so after she graduated, she moved back home with her parents in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. She’s a volunteer organizer now for the Ohio Student Association because mounting debt is holding too many students and their families back. The state has decreased its college grants to students, she says, even though more than half of all jobs in Ohio will require a college education by 2020. It is no wonder then that about 68% of Ohio’s college graduates have an average of $29,000 in debt.
“We are like frogs in boiling water,” she says. “College debt has been going up and going up and suddenly we’ve reached this point where we yell, ‘How did this happen?’ “
Rachael wants the Fox News moderators to ask the candidates: Given the cost of attending college, most students work while they are in school. And, in Ohio, if a student works 40 hours a week at a minimum wage job, they won’t earn enough to cover the average cost of attending Ohio State. How do you propose addressing the wage needs of recent college graduates and current students so that paying for their college education is not a barrier to success?
Duane Edwards, 34, Fredericksburg, VA:
Duane’s life changed drastically when he was 14 years old. His father, an Army veteran, was killed in a car crash, leaving behind a wife and three children. At that moment, Duane told himself he had to find a way to earn money so he wouldn’t be a burden on his mother. So he secretly began selling marijuana.
He was eventually caught on a drug charge and sentenced to community-based probation. His mother tried hard to keep him straight, but she had to work to maintain the family and he took advantage of her absence. He says there were few mentors or teachers who looked at him and saw any potential. Without a job and no prospects, Duane eventually landed in prison and served a three-year sentence.
“Being incarcerated made me grow up,” he says. While behind bars, he earned an associate’s degree in childhood education, and he tutored other inmates who were trying to get their GEDs. He wanted to make good on his life when he got out.
So when he was released in December 2006, he had high hopes that he would turn around the troubled life he once lived. But it was dependent on him finding work. In the first six months alone, he applied to more than 40 jobs. None would hire him because of his record. Since he’s been out, Duane has applied to more than 120 jobs and has received call backs for just 15 of them, with most offering low-wage work washing or loading trucks.
Today, the married father of two girls, who are three and four years old, has a bachelor’s degree in theology and is a pastor at a local church. It’s taken him almost nine years since he got out, but he finally has a full-time job driving a truck, making $14.50 an hour. He says he’s grateful for the job, but says it’s still hard to make ends meet.
“I would like an opportunity at a good job so I can take care of my family,” he says.
He wants to ask the candidates: Given that the school to prison pipeline starts early, particularly for young black men, and there is a decided lack of opportunity for young African Americans, what is your plan to invest in schools in marginalized communities made up primarily of people of color so that the outcomes of the students in those schools are the same as in wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods?
Patrice Mack, 45, Euclid, Ohio:
Patrice is the single mother of a 24-year-old daughter and three boys, a 14-year-old and 11-year-old twins. She owns her own home and has a college degree in business administration. Earlier this year, she left a job that paid her so little that her sons were eligible for government health insurance because she couldn’t afford the company’s insurance.
“You can have a degree and still struggle to survive,” she says. “I’m a paycheck away from poverty.”
Patrice is tapping into her retirement savings in order to get by until she finds a job. She is looking for work, but opportunities for good jobs have dwindled. And due to unpredictable, constantly shifting schedules, and a lack of paid leave and paid sick days, many jobs make it impossible to balance work and caregiving responsibilities.
She wants to ask the candidates: The minimum wage is at a level where working families can’t survive unless they work multiple jobs. So how do you propose we do a better job of parenting our children and being there for them, while at the same time earning enough income to provide for our families? And how do you think employers can incorporate paid leave or paid sick days?
Astrid Silva, 27, Las Vegas, NV:
Astrid grew up most of her life under the tinsel and lights of Las Vegas. As a young person, she was a standout student and graduated at the top of her class in her magnet high school. She’s earned associate degrees in arts and political science and is working on a bachelor’s degree. Astrid could be a poster child for today’s diverse and civic-minded millennial generation.
She’s also an undocumented immigrant.
At the age of four, Astrid rode a tire raft with her mother and crossed the Rio Grande. She wore black patent leather shoes and the “biggest poofiest white dress with purple flowers and a purple sash.” Her mother had wanted her to look pretty when they met her father in the States.
“As a young person, you understand,” she says. “I understood there was something different about us.”
She says their status affected her family in big and small ways. Neither she nor her mother were able to drive because they couldn’t get driver’s licenses. They wouldn’t go to certain areas, or leave Nevada, because they were worried they would get picked up by immigration authorities. And unlike other people in their neighborhood, they couldn’t leave the country and visit Mexico. She remembers the pain and sadness that overwhelmed her family when her grandmother died in 2009. Her father couldn’t leave and see his mother one last time because they feared he wouldn’t be able to return.
Their biggest fear came true in 2011. Her father was arrested and given deportation orders. He’s since been granted a stay, which he has to apply for every year, and Astrid says she doesn’t know how long it will last.
Since then, she has become a vocal advocate for immigration reform. President Obama even mentioned her in a speech where he deplored our “broken” immigration system.
Thanks to an executive order signed by President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to remain in the country, Astrid has a stay until 2017.
But she says that too may end after Obama’s term ends.
“I’m trying to figure out how to keep my family together here,” she says. “This is not a political strategy. For us, it’s real.”
Her question for the candidates is: Given that there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, what kind of concrete plan do you have for immigration reform? Not one that dismantles what the President has done or that focuses only on border security, but that offers real solutions for issues such as family reunification; the ban on re-entry to the U.S. by undocumented immigrants that spans three to ten years; or the rights of asylum for undocumented immigrants?