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Finally, Presidential Candidates Are Talking About Poverty

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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, candidates discussing poverty, being asked about poverty, or speaking directly to people in poverty—is still rare. As Reverend 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 Rev. 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; healthcare 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 US 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 multi-racial coalition.

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