In August 2012, The Nation launched a blog series called #TalkPoverty to “help push the issue of poverty into the mainstream political debate.” Each week we profiled advocates, scholars, and people in poverty who asked questions of President Barack Obama and the Republican challenger, then-Governor Mitt Romney. Obama responded to a final questionnaire; Romney took a pass. Still, there were no questions directly about poverty in any of the presidential debates.
Seven years later, for candidates to discuss poverty, be asked about poverty, or speak directly to people in poverty—is still rare. As the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, pointed out last week, “During the 2016 Presidential primaries and campaign, there were 26 televised debates, but not a single hour was devoted to how candidates would address America’s poverty. Republicans talk about the economy, while Democrats speak of the middle class. Nobody talks about the poor. The Poor People’s Campaign is organizing across lines created to divide us and we’re forcing those in power to listen.”
Monday marked a major step forward for pushing a conversation about poverty into presidential politics. The Poor People’s Campaign held a historic forum featuring nine Democratic presidential candidates who gathered to explicitly discuss the issue. Attendees included Vice President Joe Biden and Senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. (Invitations were sent to the Republican National Committee and Donald Trump. but neither replied.)
One important outcome of the forum was that Reverend Barber obtained a commitment from each and every candidate to push for a presidential debate focused exclusively on poverty and what the Poor People’s Campaign views as the interlocking issues that create and sustain poverty—systemic racism, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative often promoted by religious extremists that focuses on issues like abortion, rolling back gay rights, and inserting prayer in school instead of the suffering of the marginalized. Should the campaign ever need to remind the candidates of their pledges, it can put together a great montage of each one promising to fight for that debate.
As for policy, there was quite a bit that the candidates agreed on: a restoration and expansion of the Voting Rights Act; universal pre-K and affordable childcare; a $15 minimum wage; health care as a right; repealing the Trump tax cut for the wealthy; bringing the troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and reallocating those billions of dollars domestically; making college affordable or free. There was also a shared sense that scarcity of resources is a myth—the United States has plenty of money to do big things. Candidates also seemed to agree broadly that Democrats must respond to the right’s attempts to use race to pit poor people against one another by investing time and energy in building a multiracial coalition.
Moderator and MSNBC host Joy Reid pushed the candidates on how they would make their policy proposals a reality in a world in which Mitch McConnell and the Republicans either control the Senate or have the power of the filibuster. Most said it would take a sustained movement to create the kinds of policies they were discussing—that it wouldn’t be enough to “win and go home” in 2020. “Let’s be clear, if we’re in the majority and Mitch McConnell wants to block us on the kinds of things our country needs and the kinds of things they elected me and other people to enact, then I’m all for getting rid of the filibuster,” said Senator Warren, distinguishing herself as the only candidate at the forum to embrace that procedural change. “We cannot let [McConnell] block things the way he did during the Obama administration.” Biden alone seemed to put faith in his persuasive abilities with Congress, touting the three Republican votes obtained to pass the Recovery Act in the wake of the financial crisis in 2009.
Some other key differences included Andrew Yang’s call for a universal basic income of $1,000 per month. (Strangely, that was just about all he talked about during his 27 minutes of time.) Marianne Williamson endorsed reparations for slavery and the Poor People Campaign’s call for $350 billion in annual military-spending cuts, and she spoke about the trauma of child poverty, which she said has been shown to be equal to that of returning veterans. Senator Michael Bennet touted his American Family Act which he said would cut child poverty by 40 percent. Senator Harris said she would get rid of private prisons and private detention centers. Biden’s goals on health care and post-secondary education were more modest than those of the other candidates, proposing that every person have access to Medicaid—a vague statement that his campaign indicated meant a kind of public option—and making sure every “qualified” person can attend community college for free by closing a tax loophole on inherited wealth. (He said that would raise $17 billion annually, $6 billion of which would pay for free community college.)
Reverend Barber, campaign co-chair the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and poor people in the campaign also had the opportunity to ask questions. Reverend Barber pushed the candidates to pledge to organize in Southern “red states” that he said were actually “unorganized” states—where conservatives use racist voter suppression and gerrymandering to get elected and then pass laws that hurt poor whites more than anyone else, in terms of sheer numbers. He said they needed to organize not just in states where polls say they have a shot at winning—like North Carolina or Virginia—but in the 13 former Confederate states that control 26 seats in the Senate, 31 percent of the House, and 170 electoral votes, and represent about one-third of all poor people. He again obtained promises from each candidate to do so in an effort to fight for a new electorate.
There were other important advances from the perspective of the Poor People’s Campaign. They have a central goal of changing the narrative on poverty—“because if you’re not in the narrative, you’re never going to be in the policy,” Reverend Barber said. To that end they were able to impress upon the candidates and viewers that the official measure of 40 million people in poverty doesn’t even begin to capture who is poor in this country. Instead, using the more accurate supplemental-poverty measure, we see that 140 million people—more than 43 percent of the population—are poor or low-wealth, meaning one emergency away from poverty. That figure includes 9 million children, 74 million women, 26 million black people, 38 million Latinx people, 8 million Asian people, 2.14 million Native and Indigenous people, and 66 million white people. It’s consistent with findings that about 40 percent of the country can’t afford an unexpected $400 expense.
I would have liked to see Reverends Barber and Theoharis challenge the candidates a little more directly on the findings of the campaign’s “moral budget” that was released just prior to the forum. It shows how the campaign’s demands—the things politicians often deem unaffordable, like public support for food, housing, health care, college, and income security for all—could be paid for. For example, beyond ending wars overseas, what cuts to our $716 billion military budget (more than the next seven countries combined) would the candidates be willing to support? Tomorrow, a House Budget Committee hearing will take a deeper dive into that budget and hopefully it, too, will become part of the presidential conversation.
But for those of us who have been covering poverty and for advocates—and especially poor people—who have been waiting on the issue to get some traction in the presidential campaigns, yesterday was an important and hopeful day. It took a national campaign led by poor people in 41 states to make it happen, but frankly, that’s how it should be. Because when voters speak, politicians are forced to listen. And if poor people start coming together and voting together, well, in Washington parlance—that’s a game changer.