How to Solve America's Democracy and Poverty Crisis

Hardship is undermining the the nation's core values. Here are a few steps to help re-level the playing field.
President Lyndon Johnson declares the War on Poverty during the 1964 State of the Union address. (Associated Press)

Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson promised to "strike at the causes, not just the consequence" of persistent poverty in America. His War on Poverty, he told a joint session of Congress, would do more than alleviate immediate economic needs; it would "strike away the barriers to full participation in our society."

Americans may have tired of Johnson’s war, but the struggle is far from complete. Not only does poverty persist across the United States today, but American democracy itself has become impoverished. The two are more entwined than is commonly thought.

As the foregoing articles in this series have shown, tens of millions of citizens, and would-be citizens, are struggling to earn their keep and keep their faith in a democratic system from which they are excluded. Millions more low-income citizens have a hard time making it to the polls for reasons that are partly within and partly beyond their control. Making matters worse, the politicians on whom they rely do not rely on them: a tiny fraction of wealthy Americans and special interest groups lobby the federal government, and a fraction of one percent of citizens provide the lion’s share of campaign funds.

However you slice and dice the numbers, people in poverty are at a serious, structural disadvantage when it comes to making their voices heard and having their interests represented in Washington. They are far from equal citizens in the public square.

 democracy problem requires a democracy solution. Just as the gains made during the first decade of the War on Poverty cannot be separated from another pair of bills Johnson signed into law—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965—so too must the work of combatting systemic poverty today confront the lack of political equality for all. 

Fortunately, democratic-process reforms abound. If states are the laboratories of democracy, then we need look no further than American states that effectively enable their citizens to participate in public life for examples to introduce to the nation as a whole. Not surprisingly, politically inclusive states also experience considerably lower levels of poverty and higher voter turnout than other states.

Some reforms are simply a matter of equal justice under law. Denying approximately 10 million taxpaying U.S. citizens the right to vote or voting representation in Congress, because of a prior conviction or the district or territory in which they live, is morally and constitutionally suspect.

To right the first of these wrongs, all states should ensure that voting and other constitutional rights are restored to people with felony convictions once they have completed their sentence and reenter society. In no instance should a former felon be permanently disenfranchised under the Constitution. State legislation or a constitutional challenge or amendment could accomplish this task. Likewise, Congress should pass a law granting voting representation to Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the territories in the House and Senate. A constitutional challenge or amendment based on Equal Protection could also accomplish the task.

When it comes to the 16 million taxpaying immigrants of voting age who are denied the right to influence the laws under which they live, many American citizens will naturally resist extending the franchise. Nevertheless, a measured approach that ensures a path to citizenship for responsible, law-abiding immigrants and considers inclusion of immigrants in local and state elections could have a positive impact on both economic growth and social cohesion. Like the majority of American states and territories before the 1920s, Maryland already allows resident aliens to vote in certain local elections, a practice long upheld by the Supreme Court. Maryland also ranks near the top of states in terms of voter turnout.

Presented by

Daniel Weeks is former president of Americans for Campaign Reform and a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. He works on education in low-income communities at City Year.

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