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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Progressive search for “bigger we” needs bigger view of poverty


Welcome to SWOT Sunday!

As usual, the words “poverty” or “poor people” aren’t being uttered by Presidential candidates or, generally, by media covering the campaigns, in spite of the fact that the US has the highest poverty rate among the world’s 26 most developed countries.


The Presidential race is a key way that voters can choose between visions of America. So when people don’t see themselves reflected in those visions, it tends to drive cynicism up and participation down. 


Both Democrats and Republicans describe the other party as “elite,” not without reason. The path to real progressive political power will come through organizing and delivering results for the “non-elites.” So we need a good picture of who and where they are.


The CPC DOES use the P-word.  They describe their Progressive Agenda as “a vision for Congress to meet everyday Americans’ urgent needs and rebuild the American dream for the poor, working, and middle class.”  The policy agenda does indeed tout many actions which would help a broad range of people. 


But who is included in these classes, and where are they?  Poor and working people, especially those who are white, in the South and in rural areas, are too often left out of the progressive “we,”  based in coastal cities.


American poverty and inequality are both a moral failure, and a political opportunity.  We’ll take a quick look at who and where poor people are, and then at some things being done to organize that bigger “we.”


As the Poor People’s Campaign says about their Third Reconstruction campaign:  “From Appalachia to Alabama, the Carolinas to California, the Borderlands to the Bronx, from the hood to the holler, we are organizing the power of the nation’s 140 million to ensure that the abundance we live in is marshalled towards the needs and priorities of the poor. We are carrying forward the legacies of the First Reconstruction and the Second Reconstruction and their demands for equity, liberty and justice for all.”


Wealth Gap By Race


Often when you hear progressives talking about poor people or poverty, they mention the “wealth gap” between Blacks and whites.  There are many ways that our society has conspired to keep Black people poor, no doubt about it.  But that’s not the whole story.


Wealth, or net worth, is calculated as the difference between total assets and debts of a household. So if I owned a house valued at $1 million, and I had $500,000 in debt, my net worth, or wealth, would be $500,000.  When you have relatively valuable assets and low debt, you have a financial cushion.  (As it happens, I don't own a home, or a car, or a stock portfolio. So, while I have a decent income, I don't have "wealth.")


The Federal Reserve describes this “wealth gap”: “White households hold 86.8 percent of overall wealth in the country…though they account for only 68.1 percent of the households…By comparison, Black and Hispanic households hold only 2.9 and 2.8 percent of wealth, respectively, while accounting for 15.6 percent and 10.9 percent of the US population respectively.”


As a group, whites certainly hold far more wealth.   But this doesn’t mean that ALL whites are wealthy.  Far from it.  Based on 2022 Census data, about 30 million white households (29.7% of the total), have “wealth” of $50,000 or less.  That’s not much of a cushion, especially if your “wealth,” as it is for most people, is tied up in the house where you live.


Poverty By Race


Again according to 2022 Census data, there are 37.9 million people (11.5%) in the US under the official poverty line.  This measure of annual income ($13,000 for an individual, $20,000 for a family of three) vastly underestimates poverty.


According to the Poor People’s Campaign, 140 million people (or nearly half of all Americans) are poor or low income (low income meaning less than 200% of the official poverty line).  Of those, the PPC says 65.9 million are white, and 23.7 are Black.  Hispanics and Native Americans also have a high incidence of poverty.

Poverty By Location


As you can see on the map (based on Census poverty data), the greatest poverty is in the South, plus Appalachia (Kentucky and West Virginia).  These states are generally more rural than urban, and overwhelmingly (though not entirely) governed by Republicans, both on the state and Federal level.  


Democrats once had more of a presence in these areas, but their turn away from working class people (and well-honed GOP strategy) cost them a lot.  Now party leaders don’t want to “waste resources” there. 


Many of these states prohibit cities from raising wages above the state minimum, among other strategies to keep people poor.


The second-greatest poverty tier includes our biggest states with the biggest cities – NY, FL, and CA – as well as a large swath of the West and Midwest.  These states have both rural and highly urbanized areas, and Democrats are competitive if not dominant in many of them.


The Battle Is In The States


A study from Ohio State University called “Why It Is More Difficult To Be Poor In Some States Than Others,” finds that poverty rates in the EU countries ranged from 6-16% -- compared to 7-29% between US states that same year.


One implication from the findings is that state policies play a pivotal role in how many of their residents live in poverty, said D. Adam Nicholson, author of the study and President’s Postdoctoral Scholar in sociology at The Ohio State University.


One finding was that work requirements attached to welfare benefits, a beloved GOP policy, make it much harder to be poor.

“If poverty on the national level is to decrease, it likely must start with states,” Nicholson said.


If all states matched the policies of the states with the lowest poverty rates, they say, the national poverty rate would drop 5%, and 11 to 15 million people would be lifted out of poverty.


Campaigns Going On Now


Of course, the UAW’s campaign to organize unions across the South is having a major effect on the political environment there.  The UAW has already won, because they’ve changed the conversation and people’s beliefs about what’s possible.  These campaigns are multi-racial and multi-generational, and the GOP is hysterical about them for good reason.  Their power is very much hanging in the balance. 


The Poor People’s Campaign now has operations in more than forty states, in every region and across five swing states.  At the beginning of Biden’s term, they released a comprehensive poor people’s agenda.  In 2022, they launched a campaign to reach out to 5 million poor people before the midterms.  This year, they plan to mobilize a potentially powerful yet often overlooked voting bloc: the 85 million eligible voters who are poor or low-income. 


The campaign has crunched the numbers and determined that if this bloc voted at the same rate as higher-income voters, they could sway elections in every state. But most voting drives and political candidates still ignore this segment of our society.


The State Innovation Exchange (SiX) has nine state directors, across all regions, and works with legislators in all 50 states.  It released a report on “2021-2022 [State Legislative] Session Highlights: How States Build a Fairer Economy for Working Families.” 


It highlights how bold and forward-thinking state lawmakers are working to build a fairer economy by tackling long-standing structural inequalities that were magnified by the health and economic crises of the COVID-19 pandemic.


The policy areas discussed in this publication are:


·       Paid Family and Medical Leave

·       Paid Sick and Safe Leave

·       Minimum Wage

·       Unemployment Insurance

·       Workers’ Compensation

·       Wage Theft Protections


There is a website called End Poverty in America that lists a lot of organizations, both social service providers and antipoverty movements, working in this area.  It appears to be a project of author Matthew Desmond, who recently wrote an NYT bestseller called Poverty, by America.


Since 2023, there has been a Democratic Poverty Task Force in the House, with some good Reps involved including Cori Bush.


Journalism’s failure to cover poverty is, of course, a big part of the problem. That being said, there are people out there trying to elevate the issue. 


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