Poverty is a Winning Issue for 2020

by William J. Barber and Liz Theoharis
February 17, 2020

As the primaries turn towards Nevada and South Carolina, there is ongoing discussion about how voter turnout impacted the outcome in New Hampshire. To understand voter participation in 2020, we need to go back and take a look at what happened in 2016.That year was the first election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

Racist gerrymandering was reconfiguring voting districts to favor one party or another. Hundreds of polling stations were closed. The electoral college system once again crowded out the popular vote. And on top of all this, one of the most stunning factors about 2016 was that close to 100 million eligible voters — or nearly 43% of the electorate – did not vote, according to the US elections project.

In 2016 there were approximately 225.7 million eligible voters65.8 million voted for Hillary Clinton and 62.9 million voted for Donald Trump, leaving some 100 million eligible voters who opted out. Of these nearly 100 million non-voting eligible voters, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has worked with Robert Paul Hartley, an economist with the Center on Poverty and Social Policy (CPSP) at Columbia University, to calculate — using data from the Census Bureau — in a forthcoming report that 23 million were poor or low-income, with household incomes falling below twice the federal poverty line.

There is untapped potential among this voting bloc of 23 million poor and low-income voters. In the report, Hartley shows that small increases in their participation in elections could change the political terrain of this country.

Yet, this voting bloc remains largely ignored by the major political parties. They and other poor Americans rarely hear a politician call their name and speak to their conditions. In the more than 20 debates leading up to the 2016 elections, there was not a single hour dedicated to poverty or economic insecurity. This is true across party lines: Democratic candidates seemingly run from using the word “poor” or addressing poverty, focusing mainly on the middle class, while Republicans racialize poverty. As a result, 150 years after the 15th amendment, millions of voters are walking away from the ballot box.

In our work across 42 states in the country, among the 140 million poor and low-income people who are daily struggling to meet their needs in one of the richest countries in the world, we have witnessed the untapped potential of these voters.

In North Carolina, the Forward Together Moral Movement launched “Moral Monday” protests in 2013 to highlight the impact of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s policies to cut early voting, block the expansion of Medicaid and slash unemployment benefits. Better known as the “Moral Monday’s Movement,” we brought together a coalition of 200 organizations, clergy, and impacted people to resist these attacks and others on the rights of women, labor, immigrants and the LGBTQ community. Shortly after the “Moral Monday” marches, McCrory’s approval ratings dropped significantly.

He was never able to regain his popularity and was eventually unseated in 2016.

In 2019, our sustained organizing among poor and low-income voters in Kentucky resulted in several predominantly white counties that had previously gone to both Donald Trump and the Republican incumbent, Governor Matt Bevin, to flip by small margins and elect the gubernatorial candidate that embraced our agenda. In his acceptance speech, the new governor, Andy Beshear, referenced a line that we use regularly in our movement and immediately enacted several policies listed in our Moral Agenda, including ending work requirements for Medicaid and restoring voting rights to the formerly incarcerated.

The lesson we have learned is that fusion organizing – the deliberate effort to bring together poor black, white and brown people around their common interests – can change the political landscape.

These poor and low-income communities are not necessarily interested in a specific candidate, so much as a substantive platform that speaks to their needs. Contrary to popular wisdom, Trump was not ushered into the presidency by poor or working class white voters. According to the American National Election Study, only 25% of people who voted for Trump were poor, white (non-Hispanic), without college degrees and they did not necessarily agree with his platform or agenda. When we were in Harlan, Kentucky, a predominantly white county that went to Trump in 2016, we asked the people there why they voted for him. They knew he didn’t represent their interests, but, they answered, “He came to see us.”

Let’s learn our lessons from 2016. Let’s put poverty front and center in the political narrative and see what change will come.