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Unleashing the power of poor and low-income Americans

Poor People’s Campaign report says elections can turn when candidates focus on issues important to all voters

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — How would the political landscape change if the needs and demands of poor and low-income voters were better represented in the electoral process?

That’s what a report issued this week by The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, attempts to answer.

Together with the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor who directs the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. The nonpartisan campaign describes itself as “a movement dedicated to building power among the 140 million poor and low-income people in America and changing the narratives and national discourse on poverty.” Its Poor People’s Campaign Assembly and Moral March on Washington held June 20 was included in the events commissioners to the 224th General Assembly (2020) attended via videoconference.

Eradicating systemic poverty is one of three focus areas of the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 invitation.

According to “Unleashing the Power of Poor and Low-Income Americans,” available for download here, both major political parties are guilty of denying poor and low-income people full access to the political process.

The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis preaches at Freeman Chapel in Hopkinsville, Kentucky in April 2019 during the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival Real National Emergency Bus Tour in Kentucky. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“We are building the political power and moral vision to reconstruct America,” Theoharis said during a Tuesday press conference announcing the report’s release. “And this groundbreaking new report we’re releasing today proves empirically what we’ve always known: poor and low-income people can become a transformative new electorate. All across the country, poor and low-income people are demanding accountable representation and trying to save the very soul of this democracy.”

The mid-term election of 2016 showed that low-income voters can mobilize when motivated, the report says. “If the eligible population of low-income voters showed up [to the polls] at rates similar to higher-income voters, then as many as 15 states could have changed outcomes in the last presidential election,” the report notes.

Among the key findings of the report, written by Dr. Robert Paul Hartley of Columbia University’s School of Social Work with a foreword by Shailly Gupta Barnes, the PPC’s policy director:

  • In the 2016 presidential election, there were 138 million voters out of 225 million eligible voters, a turnout of 61.3 percent. Twenty-nine million of these voters were poor or low-income and there were an additional 34 million poor or low-income people who were eligible, but who did not vote.
  • Low-income people vote about 20 percentage points lower than higher income voters. The main reported reason for not voting is the same as other non-voters: lack of interest in the issues or feeling their vote will not matter.
  • Regardless of income status, about one quarter of eligible voters do not participate in elections because they are not interested in the candidates or campaign issues, or they feel their vote would not matter. Moreover, low-income individuals are less likely to vote because of illness, disability or transportation issues.
  • The issues that matter most to low-income people are health and economic well-being. Illness, disability and transportation have more of an impact on the ability of low-income people to vote.
  • Voting by mail represents 1/4 of all votes cast. Voting by mail is increasingly common across personal characteristics and income status and has been strongly bipartisan in state implementation.
  • Looking at data from the 2016 presidential election, low-income eligible nonvoters make up 1/5 or more of the electorate in seven states.
  • These results assume that all other voters participate and vote the same way at all times. But the issues of the poor, including health and economic well-being, have become everybody’s issues. “The study is not suggesting that these outcomes would change or that all of the states would change,” Hartley said during the press conference. “But there’s enough potential out there that if there’s a small margin in a certain state, this low-income population could be really pivotal if candidates are speaking to them.”

“Low-income voters may have a diversity of political leanings, that is, they certainly do not all vote the same party,” the report states in its conclusion. “At the same time, there is consistency in the reasons why people do not vote, whether low-income or otherwise, and that is mainly because the candidates or campaigns do not appeal to them. The political landscape might not change overnight if greater percentages of low-income voters show up, however, this is a large potential voting group that does not receive much attention from candidates. Campaign policy proposals are typically targeted toward the middle class, and political debates spend a minority of the time on issues directly relevant to most lower-income voters.”

“Ultimately, it is true that low-income Americans are less likely to vote, yet it does not have to be that way,” the report concludes. “For a more representative democratic election, and a large potential gain for those who speak to this population, the low-income electorate may offer a new focus for organization, mobilization, and campaign debate in the years going forward.”

In an email announcing the release of the report, Theoharis and Barber summed up the kind of campaign and election change they’d like to see.

“Politicians have chosen to focus on the ‘middle class’ and wealthy,” they said. “It’s high time we acknowledge this betrayal of nearly half the nation is morally indefensible, constitutionally inconsistent and economically insane.”

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