At the Poor People’s Campaign, nine presidential candidates discussed poverty


June 20, 2019

Earlier this week, something happened on a stage at Trinity Washington University that doesn’t happen nearly often enough.

Nine presidential candidates gathered to discuss how to best fight poverty in the United States. That might not sound all that amazing, but consider that in the 2016 presidential election, not one of the 26 debates was dedicated to the subject of poverty. And in 2012, if you watched the four general election debates between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, you did not hear a single question about the state of poverty in our country.

The nine candidates gathered at the behest of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The Poor People’s Campaign just this month released The Poor People’s Moral Budget: Everybody Has the Right to Live, its own, sweeping proposal for fighting poverty

Sen. Warren spoke to the crowd at Trinity University. Photo credit: Will Coley

Before we get to the candidates and what exactly they had to say about eradicating poverty, it is important to take note of what an unusual event this was. Greg Kaufmann, a contributing writer for The Nation and a longtime editor of, had this to say:

“…[F]or those of us who have been covering poverty and for advocates – and especially poor people – who have been waiting on the issue to get some traction in the presidential campaigns, [Monday} was an important and hopeful day. It took a national campaign led by poor people in 41 states to make it happen, but frankly, that’s how it should be. Because when voters speak, politicians are forced to listen. And if poor people start coming together and voting together, well, in Washington parlance – that’s a game changer.”

The nine candidates who participated in Monday’s event were, in alphabetical order, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Miramar, Florida Mayor Wayne Messam, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), author and activist Marianne Williamson, and businessman Andrew Yang.

Here – again in alphabetical order – is what they had to say.

Bennet touted his American Family Act, a dramatic piece of legislation that would reduce poverty by one-third by significantly expanding the Child Tax Credit. The Act would provide families with $3,000 a year, or $250 a month, per child ages 6 to 16, and $3,600 per year, or $300 a month, per child ages 0 to 5. “The folks who have looked at it say it will cut childhood poverty in America by almost 40 percent,” Bennet said. “I think we have to make work pay again in this country. We have made it too hard for some people to work. There’s a reason why our labor participation rates are so much lower than other countries in the world that have the kind of payments that I’m talking about doing.”

Biden said he would “ensure that every single person in the United States has access to Medicaid right off the bat.” He also endorsed universal pre-school for every 3, 4, and 5 year-old in the country, and, like many other candidates, he endorsed a $15 minimum wage. “It’s disgraceful that somebody works 40 hours a week and lives in poverty,” he said.

Harris proposed a tax credit – the Rent Relief Act – for renters who pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities. “99 percent of the counties in the United States, if you are a minimum wage worker, you cannot afford market rate for a one-bedroom apartment,” she said.

Harris also pledged to take on the increasing trend, on the federal level, toward privatization of prisons. “Certain human beings make money off of the incarceration of other human beings, so as President, one of the first things I would do would be to get rid of private detention centers and private prisons,” she said. “We have to take the profit margin out of the issue.”

Messam attacked the concept of “scarcity,” the idea that the United States can’t afford to attack poverty because it lacks the resources to do so. Like a few of the other candidates, he called for sharply reining in military spending. “When we address the needs of poor people and working class, hard-working people, that is really economic stimulus because of the productivity that will come out of ensuring that people have opportunity,” he said. “I get sick and tired of people saying, ‘Where is the money going to come from?’ That is just a statement to say we are not willing to pay for it because when we want a new war craft, what happens? We buy it. How many times have you heard this President talk about a new aircraft that is going to be the best and beyond any other military defense system?”

Sanders reiterated his calls for free college tuition and health care for all Americans. And he stepped up his call for allowing prison inmates to vote. “Obviously it goes without saying that if somebody as paid his or her debt to society and spent time in jail and got out, of course those people deserve the right to vote,” he said. “But let me take it a step further. I have been criticized widely for saying this. This is what I believe. If you are a citizen of America, you have the right to vote even if you are in jail. Because voting is not a question of good people and bad people. It is a question of maintaining universal right to vote for all citizens.”

Swalwell covered a sweeping array of measures, including raising the minimum wage, making it easier for workers to organize, and redirecting spending from the military to schools and infrastructure. He put particular emphasis on improving mental health services, including for those who are homeless and those who face addiction. “One of the principal causes of homelessness is addiction and a jail should never be the way to treat addiction,” he said. “The criminal justice system is not the way to treat addiction. I would invest in decentralized addiction resources, not just in hospitals, but in churches, schools, fire houses.”

Warren repeated her call for a 2 percent wealth tax, and said the proceeds should be used to wipe out student loan debt as well as pay for things such as universal child care and 3.2 million housing units for the poor, the working poor, and the homeless. She also discussed the link between environmental issues and poverty. “One of the first places I went to was coastal South Carolina where poor people, where working people, where people in struggling communities are on the front lines, trying to stop off-shore drilling. They make their lives and their livelihoods from that water,” she said. “And they say all it’s going to take is one spill, one accident, one mistake and it will wipe them out for generations to come.”

Williamson called for repealing the Trump tax cut and, perhaps more sharply than any other candidate, called for deep cuts to military spending. “I would cut off the military budget because it does not represent a legitimate security need,” she said. “It represents short-term profits for defense contractors and endless preparation for war. Every dollar you spend on education does much more to create jobs than does military expenditures.”

Yang focused almost exclusively on his proposal for providing a universal basic income of $1,000 per month. “One of the messages from my campaign is that poverty has an antidote — money,” he said. “Or, as my friend says, poverty is not absence of character, it is an absence of cash. But what we need to do is fix the capital flows in our country.”

Yang linked the issue of universal basic income and revitalizing democracy. “We all know right now our democracy revolves around who has the money,” he said. “If we put money into our hands as the shareholders of democracy, we can start retaking our government and having it work for us.”

Responding to questions from organizers, all nine candidates pledged to lobby for a debate focusing specifically on poverty. We’ll see if such a debate actually happens – but Monday’s event hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign was a long-overdue, excellent start.



Poor People's Campaign