poverty presidential race
Voters drop off ballots in Seattle in the Washington state primary on March 10. Copyright photo by John Froschauer of The Associated Press

Equal Voice

Essay: Poverty May Move to the Center of the Presidential Race

March 26, 2020

By Sasha Abramsky

Amid a pandemic and shifting economy, the question of how to address U.S. poverty may finally emerge as a top issue in a presidential campaign.

The U.S. may finally be ready to address the crisis of poverty head-on. After decades of bipartisan neglect and as a global pandemic promises a historic economic bust, the issue may be forced to the forefront of the presidential campaign.

People around the world are quarantined, businesses have been shuttered and there’s a strong likelihood that millions will lose their jobs and savings as the stock market crumbles. Poverty and access to health care will almost certainly be all-important issues in this November’s election.

Even before the coronavirus crisis morphed into the first true pandemic in a century ... there was some indication that poverty had become more of a front-burner issue for candidates and voters.

“Poverty hasn’t been very interesting in presidentials [elections] for a long, long time,” says Peter Edelman, professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University and author of the book “Not a Crime to be Poor.” “We’ve never been successful at putting it on the front burner.”

In recent election cycles, politicians of both parties have bemoaned a rising inequality seemingly hard baked into the economic structures of modern America. But they have done so in terms that generally express concern for a struggling middle-class and outrage at the growth of a small billionaire class that has disproportionate influence over the political and economic systems of the country. They have often taken swipes at poor people and anti-poverty programs instead of seriously addressing the conditions that trap people in poverty.

Donald Trump’s election in 2016 was, at least in part, a reaction against trade deals that helped hollow out industrial cities and replaced living-wage manufacturing employment with lower-paying service sector work. Not to mention a sense that economic opportunity for younger Americans was contracting even though taxpayers bailed out banks to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars after the 2008 recession. Trump rode that angst, pitching himself as a tribune of the angry people.

Edelman argues that rhetorical move was low-hanging fruit. He believes it is far harder to inject a presidential campaign with a genuine and complex policy discussion about programs that would cut into the poverty rate – which has fallen during the recent economic boom, but still stands at roughly 12 percent. That rate will soar again now that the coronavirus outbreak has triggered stay-at-home orders for tens of millions of Americans, triggering a full-on economic retrenchment, a stock market collapse and a cratering in consumer confidence.

poverty presidential race
Poll judges put out a flag at the Lincoln Lodge Polling Station, 1st ward, on March 17 in Chicago. Copyright photo by James Foster of the Chicago Sun-Times via The Associated Press

It’s also difficult to propose policy fixes for the problem of near-poverty or chronic economic insecurity, which by some estimates impacts up to 40 percent of families. These families don’t show up in official poverty numbers, yet this data suggest just how many people are living paycheck to paycheck. They have no cushion if economic conditions head into reverse, as they have now done in unprecedented fashion in the face of pandemic conditions.

That aversion to think big on poverty and endemic economic insecurity has, in recent decades, held true almost as much for Democrats as for Republicans. Ceding the policy high ground by Democrats took off when President Bill Clinton signed off on welfare reform in the 1990s, substituting Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) for the less restrictive War on Poverty-era Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The new program set time limits and work requirements for women enrolling in cash welfare for themselves and their children. Edelman argues it was a change that contributed to locking in deep poverty for millions of families, with reductions in welfare rolls substituting as a measure of success for actual reductions in poverty.

In the decades following welfare reform, it was something of a third rail for Democrats to broach TANF’s shortcomings and other systemic failings of the social safety net. The Democrats owned that policy change. They had to at least pay lip service to it being a success.

poverty presidential race
A person takes a moment to relax outside (Image was made before the coronavirus pandemic surfaced in 2020). Gender Spectrum Collection photo by Zackary Drucker and distributed by Vice under a Creative Commons license.

Meanwhile, Republicans had little interest in pushing a genuine discussion on poverty, preferring to frame debates over safety-net benefits such as food stamps as being about personal responsibility and fiscal probity. Ronald Reagan talked about “welfare queens” cheating the American taxpayer. George H.W. Bush pursued a tough-on-crime policy that put more Black and Brown people behind bars and excluded them from public benefits upon their release. George W. Bush half-heartedly tried to privatize Social Security.

“President Trump is finding every opportunity to talk about food stamps,” says Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center on Law on Poverty. “Unfortunately, it’s in the context of wanting to cut the benefit.”

On June 1, unless they are postponed in the face of the public health and economic crises, new federal work requirements will kick in for able-bodied adult food stamp recipients. At a minimum, hundreds of thousands will lose access to the program; some advocacy groups, however, believe the final number could be closer to 3 million.

The rolling back of food stamp eligibility, along with new public charge rules, effective as of February, have the effect of driving large numbers of immigrant families away from medical, nutritional and housing assistance programs. They’re among the most destructive parts of the current politics around poverty, in keeping with a decades-long political trend of bashing the poor instead of explaining why so many people are stuck in conditions of poverty in the first place.

poverty presidential race
Joe Sierra, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, hugs his son Kyrie, in September 2018, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Photo by Mike Kane for Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice

Edelman argues that an honest discussion on poverty is long past due. In an era when the three wealthiest Americans possess wealth equal to that of the bottom 150 million Americans and 40 percent of workers, according to economic analysis by Prosperity Now, report living paycheck to paycheck, poverty is clearly a key part of the 21st century American story.

Poverty Solutions Debated

Even before the coronavirus crisis morphed into the first true pandemic in a century and put vast sectors of the economy on hold, there was some indication that poverty had become more of a front-burner issue for candidates and voters.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders framed Medicare for All and a reining-in of insurance and drug companies – as anti-poverty measures intended to ensure that sickness didn’t lead to bankruptcy. He pushed hard for changes to the tax code intended to generate large pools of funds for investments in the country’s social safety net systems.

Erstwhile presidential hopeful Julián Castro released detailed plans on how to tackle hunger in America in 2019, with policies aimed at increasing food availability for kids in schools, ending time limits for enrollment in food stamps and eliminating bans on drug felons accessing nutritional programs.

poverty presidential race
Families enjoy a Lunar New Year festival in Seattle in February 2019. Photo by Mike Kane for Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice

Other candidates paid heed to anti-poverty proposals in Marguerite Casey Foundation’s National Family Platform, releasing detailed policy proposals on a range of poverty-related themes. Those included reining in consumer debt, expanding access to affordable higher education and child care, and implementing paid family sick leave.

Building on that, organizations such as The Rev. William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign have been working with candidates to encourage a greater focus on poverty and its triggers: lack of access to affordable housing and health care, debt traps around higher education, low wages, and more.

In the summer of 2019, Barber’s campaign held a forum in Washington, D.C., with nine presidential hopefuls to discuss their approaches to poverty. Eight months later, Bernie Sanders joined Barber at a packed church gathering in Goldsboro, North Carolina, to talk about anti-poverty efforts.

That aversion to think big on poverty and endemic economic insecurity has, in recent decades, held true almost as much for Democrats as for Republicans.

Sanders bemoaned the fact that poverty so rarely was discussed on the campaign trail and argued that without a focus on a living wage and access to health care, poverty would continue to worsen in the country. He added that without a strategy to combat voter suppression, poor people would be locked out of participation in the political process.

As the November election nears, anti-poverty groups are pushing to get the crisis of American poverty onto the political center stage. Barber’s group is spearheading a Moral Majority Moral March on Washington scheduled for June.

Given the scale of lockdowns to try to stem the coronavirus outbreak, it’s unclear whether large in-person gatherings will be possible in June. If the march goes ahead, however, those on it will demand that candidates for high office pay more attention to issues of systemic poverty.

The Action for Opportunity Coalition reached out to all Democratic presidential hopefuls and Donald Trump asking about their plans to reduce poverty and increase economic opportunity. Nine Democratic hopefuls sent detailed replies; Trump’s team ignored repeated requests.

Across the ideological spectrum, from Mike Bloomberg to Sanders, Democrats embraced anti-poverty measures that would have been seen as far outside of the mainstream debate four or eight years ago. Bloomberg endorsed a $15-per-hour minimum wage, urged that housing choice vouchers be made “an entitlement for those on extremely low incomes” and promised to double federal spending on homelessness. Biden pledged to strengthen trade unions, enforce existing labor laws more stringently and sign mandatory paid sick leave into law. Sanders pushed his universal health care proposals and put his support behind a multi-trillion-dollar strategy to end homelessness in the country.

poverty presidential race
Residents in the Burlington, North Carolina area speak with a Down Home North Carolina organizer in December 2017 about ways to improve their community and build grassroots power. Down Home North Carolina is affiliated with People's Action. Marguerite Casey Foundation/Equal Voice photo by Brad Wong

Are Democrats Due for Wins?

Progressive economists James Galbraith, of the University of Texas at Austin, and Jaehee Choi, of the University of Texas Inequality Project, recently published a paper in the journal “Structural Change and Economic Dynamics” arguing that the Democrats’ political coalition is now made up of people at the poor and wealthy ends of the economic spectrum. They found the trend began in the 1970s and picked up steam in the 1990s.

In states with growing extremes of inequality, especially where wealth is being generated by high-tech industries dominated by socially liberal entrepreneurs, Democrats tend to do well electorally. By contrast, in states with a larger middle class and relatively fewer numbers of poor and wealthy people, the Republicans do better.

Galbraith and Choi found that as much as half of the increase in inequality between 1993 and 2000 could be explained by the concentration of extreme wealth in a handful of high-tech and financial centers in five counties in Northern California, Washington state and New York. Those centers were politically liberal hubs and became more liberal during the years of growing inequality.

Politicians of both parties ... have often taken swipes at poor people and anti-poverty programs instead of seriously addressing the conditions that trap people in poverty.

In recent years, the researchers found a number of states in the South, including Virginia, Georgia and other Republican strongholds, were also experiencing significant increases in inequality. That suggested the Democrats were due for significant electoral gains in those regions – as has been the case in the last few election cycles, especially the 2018 midterms. Galbraith believes if the Democrats succeed in focusing attention on poverty over the coming months, this growing inequality could help Democrats electorally in November 2020.

“The role of the oligarchy as a critical issue certainly started to emerge in the last cycle, in the Democratic primaries, with Sanders’ challenge to Clinton,” Galbraith says. “It’s become the leading issue, as this campaign is truly an open power struggle between the billionaire class and the rest of the country.”

Democratic policies, such as expanding access to health care and a more generous social safety net, tend to reduce inequality. Galbraith and Choi’s thesis suggests that has tilted more voters into the GOP camp in the long run. Since GOP tax policies, right-to-work policies and hostility to safety net programs tend to exacerbate inequalities and create a more Democratic-friendly political environment in the long run. Galbraith and his colleagues argue that this creates a self-correcting mechanism in America’s two-party system, limiting one-party dominance at a state and federal level over the course of decades.

The GOP has dominated at the presidential and Senate levels since 1980. A Republican has occupied the White House for 24 of the last 40 years. Between 1994 and 2018 there were only two years when Democrats controlled the White House, Senate and House. By extension, as the GOP fast-tracks judicial appointments, the courts are becoming increasingly conservative. The Galbraith/Choi model suggests that, in reaction to the increased inequality created by Republican policy priorities dominating the discourse, Democrats are increasingly likely to succeed electorally at the federal and state level in the next election, and that the more they talk about tackling poverty, the more likely they are to reap electoral benefits.

“There are things stirring,” says Edelman, who also is faculty director at The Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law. “Things that don’t have a large visibility when you pick up the paper every day.”

That holds true now more than ever. In February, the number of Americans below the poverty line was at its lowest point in decades. That good news was largely cancelled out by the fact that the number of people living just above that poverty line has gone sharply up in recent decades.

“Between the poverty line and double that, we’re talking about 90 million people, and it’s been over 100 million,” Edelman says. “That’s a whole lot of people who are hurting.”

Since February, stock markets have swooned, the hospitality and tourism industries have been hit with one body blow after another, and state and city budgets are heading deep into deficit.

We don’t know how long the pandemic will last. But even if it somehow ended in the spring, the economic fallout will impact those already on the economic margins for years to come. Addressing their needs will be a moral and political imperative for anyone seeking office in November. After years in the shadows, poverty is now center stage.


Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and book author. The United Nations cited his 2013 book, “The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives,” in its 2018 report about extreme poverty and human rights in the U.S. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All content, except for copyright photographs, can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.

Essay: Poverty May Move to the Center of the Presidential Race