The Common Good

What Is Left Unsaid in This Campaign

Much has been said by politicians and the press in this campaign. In three presidential debates alone, we've heard the two contenders for our nation's highest office speak of tax cuts, deficits, jobs, and the middle class literally hundreds of times. 

But much has also been left unsaid. In those same presidential debates, poverty was hardly featured and the word "inequality"didn't appear at all.

How can it be that the Holy Bible refers to helping the poor and vulnerable more than 2,000 times, yet two professing Christians running for president of the United States disregard this unholy scourge?

As we did not hear in the debates, nearly 50 million Americans are currently living in poverty – more than at any other time in our nation's history – and between a third and half of all Americans are within a few lost paychecks of the poverty line. When a quarter of all American jobs pay less than poverty line wages for a family of four, systemic poverty and inequality become more than abstract economics: they are moral and Constitutional concerns. 

So they should be treated by the men and women who aspire to lead our country.

But the politics of modern elections do not favor the least of these God's children. Consider that one in 10 American adults – most of them poor and disproportionately people of color – are legally barred from voting because of a past conviction. Or that those at the bottom of the economic ladder are seven times less likely to engage in politics than those at the top, largely because of legal and social barriers to political participation. 

Consider, also, that a fraction of 1 percent of the population – those at the very top – contribute more than 80 percent of the billions of dollars that fund campaigns, and just five wealthy interests accounted for a majority of super PAC spending in this election. 

Could it be because poor people are America's "second-class citizens?" Could it be because economic and political inequality are increasingly one and the same thing in a system where money is a necessary condition to seeking public office? 

If our less fortunate neighbors in poverty had the chance to speak and be heard in this election, what would they say?

It was in hopes of hearing directly from some of these second-class citizens that I recently set off on a "Poor (in) Democracy" tour by Greyhound bus through the southern and eastern U.S., retracing the steps of Democracy in America author Alexis de Tocqueville on a poverty-line budget of $16 per day. 

I spoke to jobless youth in Boston and New York, immigrant venders in Philadelphia, retired cooks and clerks in Pittsburgh, working poor janitors and social workers in Cincinnati, undocumented immigrants and activists in Memphis, former farm hands in Mississippi, hurricane homeless in New Orleans, grocery store stockers in Montgomery, park workers in North Carolina, and homeless people on Capital Hill in Washington, D.C. 

They were male and female, black, white, and brown. They ranged from 23 to 65 years old and spoke English, Spanish, Haitian, and French. Some were ex-offenders, some were unemployed, some were on welfare, some were homeless, and too many were all of the above. All were below – or within easy reach of – the poverty line. 

What did they have to say about poverty and our democracy? More than I could possibly do justice to here, but a few messages bear repeating in the final days of this election.

"How can I support my kids on eight bucks an hour when the company denies me benefits and cuts back my hours and my workload stays the same?" asked a janitor and mother of two in Cincinnati. 

"How can our kids grow up to be equal citizens when so many are living in poverty and attending failing schools?" was the accompanying question from a single mother of four, who works full-time with people on welfare and depends on food stamps herself.

"I get in line at the temp agency at 5 a.m. but if I've worked the last three days they cut me off, say it's someone else's turn," was the lesson from a homeless mechanic in New Orleans, who once helped Coast Guard troops pull stranded neighbors off of rooftops during Hurricane Katrina. "I know I've made mistakes, but all I want is a job so I can get off the streets and pay my way."

"Whatever happened to the land of second chances?" several people asked, referring to the loss of voting rights and other civil liberties – not to mention the black mark against future employment – that results from a single conviction in many states. 

"Why do some Americans hate the poor – aren't we Americans too?" others asked, referring to laws in many southern states that make homelessness and panhandling illegal. Many related stories of being jailed for weeks at a time after asking pedestrians for spare change or sleeping outdoors in public view. "I've been on the housing list for the last 10 years."

To my question about who determines the course our country takes, there was but one universal refrain: "American politics is all about the money."

I do not recommend sleeping in bus stations, on park benches, in borrowed beds, or on the bus for those who can make the choice. But as long as millions of fellow citizens cannot, those in more privileged positions – especially our politicians – would do well to take to heart these unhappy facts of life. Perhaps then we might hear from the lips of our nation's leaders more than a passing reference to the scourge of poverty and political inequality in our time. 

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed nearly 200 years ago, "America is great because America is good; If America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great."

Daniel Weeks, the past president of Americans for Campaign Reform, is conducting interviews around the country for a book on poverty and democracy through a Safra Center for Ethics fellowship at Harvard University. For more info, click here.

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