How the Democratic Candidates Talk about Poverty

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Former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders speak during the Democratic primary debate in Miami. 

When Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, founder of the Moral Monday movement, co-chair of the current Poor People’s Campaign, and one of the most popular faith leaders in the country, asks something of you, you say yes. Especially if you’re running for president.

Last week, the Poor People’s Campaign hosted a “Moral Action Congress” to force discussion about the economic instability that is threaded throughout the lives of 140 million Americans. But after two nights of Democratic debates, I’m not sure participation in the Poor People’s Campaign forum affected any of the candidates enough for them to bring their experience with them on stage. But their remarks about Medicare for All and income inequality suggest that the Democratic Party is finding new ways to address poverty in the U.S.—and they can and should go farther.

Barber and his co-chair Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis had invited all two-dozen candidates to Trinity Washington University to discuss their commitments to ending poverty. They grilled each of the nine who showed (Warren, Sanders, Harris, Biden, Yang, Bennet, Williamson, and Swalwell as well as Wayne Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Florida, who didn’t qualify for the NBC Debates), to support a debate focused solely on the topic of poverty. Each candidate agreed, though few expect the DNC to convene issue-based debates.  

On the stage in Miami, it was up to candidates to bring up poverty—there were no explicit questions about it, and the concerns of the impoverished are typically not debated in such marquee settings. The word “poverty” itself was only uttered three times, and each was in a closing statement: de Blasio on night one, and then Swalwell and Sanders, who explicitly asked “How come we have the highest rate of childhood poverty?” on night two.

But the way the Democratic Party debates the root causes of poverty may be changing. Policies like Medicare for All, student debt cancellation, and free public college acted as proxies for discussions of economic justice. Warren called for “structural change,” saying “When you’ve got a government, when you've got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple.” 

All on the stage spoke about health care as a basic right. It’s easy to forget that many of the policies debated, like Medicare for All, were once fringe ideas of the party’s left flank. On the first night, Amy Klobuchar, the moderate’s moderate, argued for a public option instead of Medicare for All. Warren, Sanders, and de Blasio were all in favor of abolishing private insurance. Harris seemed to join in the call for this as she raised her hand last night, but she walked back that commitment after the debate. Even after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, millions of low-income people are without health insurance, and Sanders explained this systemically, stating that “The function of the healthcare system today is to make billions in profits for the insurance companies,” instead of first and foremost providing care.

When candidates raised the issue of poverty, it was through discussion of income inequality. Sanders, in his opening remarks, called for “real change.” “[T]hree people in this country [own] more wealth than the bottom half of America, while 500,000 people are sleeping out on the streets today,” he said, pointing to research from the Institute for Policy Studies. Warren wasn’t asked about income inequality, but she also dove into the issue in her first statement. “Who is this economy really working for?” she asked. “It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. It’s doing great for giant drug companies. It’s just not doing great for people who are trying to get a prescription filled.”

Even so, many on the stage pointed to “working families” as a signifier for struggling people—or worse, they simply used “middle class,” as if “middle class” means poor. Here as in all political arenas, it seems that hard work won out as the key to ending poverty, except while Republicans want to see more of it, Democrats do know that lots of people are already working too hard for too little, and want to reward that work. More of the flowery language used included promises to bring “dignity” back to these workers, operating from the assumption that dignity is only found in wage labor. (“Dignity” was uttered eight times over the two nights, if you want to make a neat little chart comparing words evoking individualism and sweat and those evoking poverty and need.)

Harris, for one, spoke about how “In our America, no one should have to work more than one job to have a roof over their head and food on the table.” A liberal message, but the implication is clear: To have food and shelter, you still need a job.

But one reason why it’s difficult to talk about poverty on the debate stage is the way that questions are framed. The first question posed to Harris was if Democrats have a responsibility to explain how they will pay for their proposals. In response, Harris smartly, asked “[W]here was that question when the Republicans and Donald Trump passed a tax bill that benefits the top 1 percent and the biggest corporations in this country?” 

But ending poverty does cost money, and so often candidates point to “working families” to elicit sympathy. Indeed, Harris’s signature issue, as she said in an answer to an admittedly trivial question by Chuck Todd, would be a tax cut for the “middle class and working families.” That’s by no means radical, and would do nothing for the families who aren’t working at all, whether because they have disabilities, they can’t find jobs, or for some other irrelevant reason.

The way that Democrats should be framing these issues needs to fall back onto the true definition of what a “basic right” is—and so, the discussion of health care—and all candidates including undocumented immigrants in the equation—is a great start. But this framing could encompass more—like when candidates are talking about housing and food.

The candidates at the Moral Action Congress did better, when they were in front of an audience that wouldn’t criticize their spending, because so many in that audience were poor themselves.

Then, Biden pointed to ending the GOP’s tax cuts and reducing military spending to pay for programs for low-income people. 

“We have all the money we need to do it,” he said.

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