The needs of the poor are not a huge topic of discussion on the presidential campaign trail. It’s no surprise that President Donald Trump makes no mention of his cruel policies toward the 38.1 million Americans living in poverty. But it might seem odd that Democratic candidates, champions and defenders of the poor, also spend few words on poverty.
To be sure, the plight of the poor is a tough sell in a campaign focused on middle class voters – both blue and white collar – who are probably going to determine the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Still, poverty matters in New York City, where nearly one of three voting age adults – 1.7 million potential voters – live in low-income households according to The Unheard Third, a survey by the Community Service Society and polling firm Lake Research Partners.
This telephone poll of 1,829 New York City residents found that their top issues included affordable housing, public transportation, health care, public safety, the student loan crisis, raising the minimum wage to $15 and benefits, like family leave, sick days and paid vacation.
We examined the presidential candidates’ stances on the top issues important to NYC voters as part of “Decision 2020, Cities Matter,” – a voter’s guide for this year’s presidential election. Affordable housing is arguably the biggest concern to low income voters. The Unheard Third survey found 77 percent of low-income respondents, including 87 percent of low-income blacks, said making rent and housing more affordable is very important. Those concerns have produced the strongest housing platform offered by a field of Democratic candidates in recent memory: all of them, from the most liberal to the moderate, embrace strong affordable housing plans that would benefit New Yorkers, according to a CSS analysis.
Among the leading Democratic presidential candidates –– Pete Buttigieg as well as Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker –– continue to embrace progressive affordable housing policies even as the field of candidates become less racially diverse and the most vocal supporter of public housing, former Obama housing secretary Julian Castro, dropped out of the race. The problem has been that despite no shortage of good proposals, affordable housing has received little attention from the media or in the debates.
Overall, the Democratic policy proposals are directed toward improving economic opportunities for the working class that, by extension, help poor people as well. The five Democrats that have qualified for the January 14th debate (Booker has yet to qualify) have across the board targeted changes in the tax code, according to Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy, to help those in the bottom half of the nation’s income distribution. They have also called for raising tax rates on the wealthy or less spending on programs that would help the top 10 percent of wage earners. For instance, the candidates all support raising the corporate tax rate slashed by Trump and increasing taxes on the wealthy.
The Democratic field has been most vocal about the need to expand health care coverage for more Americans, though they are seriously split on how to do it. Some have called for Medicare-for-all, a government-run single-payer plan. Other candidates have said Medicare-for-all is a great long-term goal but stop short of calling for a government-run system. Still others believe in more modest measures to expand health insurance.
As college costs and student debt have risen, more attention has been focused on federal support for higher education. The Unheard Third poll found 85 percent of black women, 78 percent of Latina women, 74 percent of parents of teens, and 68 percent of low-income New Yorkers say making public college affordable for everyone is very important. That aligns with a Democratic candidate push for making community college free, and even making some four-year public colleges free or debt free for some or all students.
There are a few reasons, aside from the focus on middle class voters, for poverty’s absence from the lips of the Democratic presidential candidates. First, Democrats are facing a challenge they haven’t confronted since the 1988 presidential election. They are trying to persuade enough Americans to kick a Republican out of the White House even though the economy is doing well.
Secondly, Democrats seem befuddled about how to respond to the Trump administration’s outrageously cruel treatment of the poor and immigrants. You don’t often see civilized governments admit to plotting an increase in poverty and misery within their own borders, such as the proposal to slash food stamps. But the Trump administration not only admits to these bad intentions, but boasts about it.
The time is soon arriving to call it out loud, plainly and clearly for everyone to hear and understand and then go to into the voter booth to make a choice.
David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.