The war on poverty begins at the ballot box

Voter suppression and gerrymandering have created unfair elections that keep poor people out of the democratic process

The Guardian
Reverend William Barber and Dr Liz Theoharis
September 16, 2018

This week, the US Census Bureau released 2017 poverty data, reporting that 12.3% live below the federal poverty line. This means that about 40 million people are “officially” poor. It also reported that, according to the Supplemental Poverty Measure, 13.9% or about 45 million are poor.

This data is not much different than in 2016, nor is it a complete picture of the deep economic insecurity plaguing tens of millions of people in the United States.

This data also reports that another 29.4% of the population or another 95 million people are “low-income” and struggling to meet their daily needs. Taken together, this means that 43.3% or about 140 million people are living in precarious conditions, either poor or one emergency away from severe economic hardship.

Earlier this year, IPS and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival released the Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America report and found that, drawing on SPM data from 2016, 140 million were poor or low-income. Recent reports from the Urban Institute, the Federal Reserve and theUnited Way, have found similar numbers.

With the economy approaching full employment and the stock market rising, why are so many of us being left behind?

The high number of people experiencing poverty this year and over the past years is not because of some moral failure on the part of the poor. It is not because they do not understand how to spend or save money. It is not because they aren’t working – many work two or three jobs just to get by.

The root of inequality in the US can be traced back to our broken democracy. Racialized voter suppression and gerrymandering have created unfair elections that keep poor people, especially poor black, Latinx and Native Americans, out of the democratic process. Since 2010, more than 23 states have passed racist voter suppression laws. In the unfair elections that follow, politicians are elected who care more about tax cuts for the wealthy than living wages, universal healthcare, and critical social services for the poor.

The weight of poverty lies squarely on the shoulders of politicians who lack the will and political courage to truly eradicate poverty despite abundant resources to do so.

If we are to truly wage a war on poverty, we must start by mobilizing and registering poor and disenfranchised voters who have been left out of the process for far too long.

Earlier this year, the Poor People’s Campaign waged the most expansive wave of non-violent civil disobedience in history, calling attention to the systemic racism, poverty, militarism and ecological devastation plaguing the nation. We marched on state houses and Capitol Hill, risking arrest to lift up the voices of people directly affected by these issues.

Now, with the midterms in sight, we’re deepening our organizing efforts with an eye toward registering and mobilizing poor voters and building moral knowledge and political power in our communities from the bottom up. We plan on executing massive voter registration efforts in addition to a series of town halls aimed at highlighting the true face of poverty in the US. We believe by empowering often forgotten communities and driving those voters to the polls, the poor and disenfranchised can be a game changer in this election and the years to come.

The Poor People’s Campaign has built organizing committees in 40 states, including in every state of the former Confederacy, which will form the backbone of this next phase of our campaign. Those committees are composed of poor people, clergy and advocates who will recruit new leaders in each state to engage tens of thousands of poor and low-income people around the issues that affect their lives.

What makes this different from the typical voter registration and mobilization drive is we’re not a single-issue effort gearing up for a particular election. We’re building deep infrastructure in the states to fight for long-term change. By impacting both elections and policies, only then, will we truly be able to put a dent in the number of people living in poverty in the richest nation on earth.