Poverty vs. Democracy in America

50 years after Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, tens of millions of second-class Americans are still legally or effectively disenfranchised.

Eric Thayer/Reuters

Richard says he is done being a criminal—but the law isn't done with him. Ever since he completed his four-year prison sentence for armed robbery, the 28-year-old from Montgomery, Alabama, has been struggling to get back on his feet. He admits to making mistakes—"I dropped out of school, fell into the street life … did things I shouldn't do"—but now that he has served his time, he's asking for a second chance.

He says he can't understand why Alabama has a lifetime ban on people with felony convictions getting food stamps or public assistance, or why people like him don't have rights when it comes to housing or getting hired. Although his skills as an electrician are in high demand, he has so far been unable to find a job or a home on account of his record. But the biggest insult of all, he says, is his lack of civil rights in the land of Martin Luther King. Together with around four million other former felons nationwide—most of them impoverished—Richard is legally barred from going to the polls. "Some people don't believe in second chances," he says. "No way my voice can be heard."

Andy and Maria were criminals of a different kind: They picked the wrong country of birth and decided to pick again when they grew up. Having spent the better part of their combined 177 years waiting to attain the holy grail of U.S. citizenship, the elderly couple from Mexico take pride in their legal status after a lifetime of unlawful labor in the fields and factories of Texas and California. Pooling their $700 a month in Social Security is enough to pay the mortgage on the 400-square-foot trailer they call home in one of the unincorporated colonias outside El Paso, Texas—but only just. In spite of their hard-won citizenship, Andy says that voting and getting heard is a stretch. "The politicians only come here when they're looking for votes—don't care about the little people," he says. Last election, for example, they waited outside in line for over three hours before casting a ballot because the state neglected to properly staff their polling place. "I guess they didn't think any of us would vote," Maria says. Still, she maintains that waiting in line is a small price to pay when a third to half of their neighbors—and 22 million non-citizens nationwide—are prevented from going to the polls.

Malik never broke any laws. He did not make the mistake of being born abroad. In fact, the former social worker now on disability was born and raised in the heart of the nation's capital. That's where he went wrong, as far as citizenship is concerned: Malik and some 630,000 Americans living in Washington, D.C.—along with over 4 million taxpaying U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the other island territories—lack voting representation in Congress. For most of their history, they even lacked the right to vote in presidential elections or, for Washingtonians, to choose their city leaders. According to Malik, it doesn't help that D.C. and Puerto Rico top the poverty charts, a fact with which he has become personally acquainted since losing his job and moving into an overcrowded shelter not far from the U.S. Capitol. He views poverty as both personal and political: "People that got the money, they put their people in place," he says. "Ain't got no representation in Congress!"

These four American citizens are imperfect, like you and I, but that's not all. They are members of an impoverished underclass—50 million strong—whose ranks have swelled since the Great Recession to the highest rate and number below the poverty line in nearly 50 years. Nearly half of them—20.5 million people, including each of the people mentioned above—are living in deep poverty on less than $12,000 per year for a family of four, the highest rate since record-keeping began in 1975. Add to that the hundred million citizens who are struggling to stay a few paychecks above the poverty line, and fully half the U.S. population is either poor or "near poor," according to the Census Bureau.

Economically speaking, their poverty entails a lack of decent-paying jobs and government supports to sustain a healthy life. With half of American jobs paying less than $33,000 per year and a quarter paying poverty-line wages of $22,000 or less, even as financial markets soar, people in the bottom fifth of the income distribution now command the smallest share of income—3.3 percent—since the government started tracking income breakdowns in the 1960s. Middle-wage jobs lost during the Great Recession are largely being replaced by low-wage jobs—when they are replaced at all—contributing to an 11 percent decline in real income for poor families since 1979. For the 27 million adults who are unemployed or underemployed and the 48 million people in working poor families who rely on some form of public support, means-tested government programs excluding Medicaid have remained essentially flat for the past 20 years, at around $1,000 per capita per year. Only unemployment insurance and food stamps have seen a marked increase in recent years, although both are currently under assault in Congress.

Socially speaking, poor people occupy a space apart from mainstream. For the nearly one in four children who are impoverished, hunger and homelessness, absent and incarcerated parents, violence, and substance abuse are regular facts of life. These and other "toxic stressors" contribute to high-school dropout rates of around 50 percent and college-graduation rates of less than 10 percent for people in poverty—five times worse than upper-income youth. Without a high-school diploma, poor children are four times more likely than their college-educated peers to be unemployed and 10 to 20 times more likely to end up behind bars. Regardless of high-school completion and criminal status, close to half of all people raised in persistent poverty remain poor at the age of 35, transmitting the same status to their kids, while less than four percent join the upper-middle class. Even their health is affected: Prior to implementation of the Affordable Care Act, around four in 10 Americans in poverty or who lack a high-school diploma also do not have health insurance—four times the rate among non-poor people—and one third of all deaths are estimated to result from poverty and low-education.

But poverty in the United States is not just an economic or social concern. As this series will explore, the poverty that Andy and Maria, Richard and Malik, and tens of millions of "second-class citizens" nationwide, experience is also political. It is embedded in the structure of American society and maintained by an unequal distribution of political power. The statistics are straightforward enough: Half a century after civil rights, nearly 10 million voting-age citizens are denied the right to vote or voting representation in Congress; 16 million immigrants of voting age have no formal stake in the political process; and tens of millions more law-abiding citizens are informally excluded from voting and other forms of participation. Meanwhile, the politicians on whom they rely do not rely on them: A tiny fraction of wealthy Americans lobbies the federal government while fewer than one percent provides the lion's share of campaign funds.

In the articles that follow, I take up the question of political voice in America through the stories of low-income people themselves. The voices belong to an assortment of citizens and would-be citizens I interviewed during a research tour by Greyhound bus in fall 2012 and spring 2013, backed by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. In an attempt to better understand the conditions of life my interviewees described, I lived on a poverty-line budget of $16 per day throughout my six-week tour, excluding Greyhound fare. The tour took me some 10,000 miles through 30 states and countless cities and towns across the continental United States and back—hardly adequate to develop a rich understanding of a given person or place, but appropriate to the task of surveying the broader scene of poverty and political voice in America. While the individuals featured in this series cannot possibly speak for the dozens of people I interviewed and hundreds of other people with whom I spoke, I've tried to provide a fair representation of the views and concerns expressed throughout my travels.

Mine is not an original exploration, nor is it a definitive account of poverty in the United States. Fifty years ago, Michael Harrington revolutionized the way Americans saw poverty in The Other America—at least for a generation. He did so by showing his audience that even in the post-war boom of the 1950s and ‘60s, poverty was real. The problem then, Harrington argued, was not so much that poor people were rejected or forgotten: "What is much worse, they are not seen." Harrington's nuanced portrayals of an American underclass in forgotten byways of rural Appalachia and isolated urban slums brought the "invisible" poor into the light of day. His writings are partly credited with launching the War on Poverty, announced by President Lyndon B. Johnson in his State of the Union Address 50 years ago this week. Many courageous journalists and social critics have followed in his footsteps since.

In many ways, my job is not as hard as Harrington's. In an age of social media and TV exposés, "the poor" are not as invisible today as they were in the 1960s. But being visible is not the same thing as being heard. By a host of relevant measures beyond their control, people with limited incomes have lost their place at the table of American democracy. Poor people walk the streets of our nation's capital. They sleep on benches on Capitol Hill and outside the White House gates in Lafayette Square. In every state and community in the land, they clear the trash, pick the crops, man the gates, clean the offices, mind the children, tend the aged, and deliver the goods that keep America going. They are ubiquitous, they are indispensable, and they are largely silent.

When Johnson called on Congress to join him in launching a War on Poverty in 1964, he boldly asserted, "Today, for the first time in our history, we have the power to strike away the barriers to full participation in our society. Having the power, we have the duty." His campaign promised to "strike at the causes, not just the consequence" of poverty in America. While the War on Poverty is credited with helping millions of Americans move out of poverty, the work of extending equal opportunity and full participation to all people in our society is far from complete. If America intends to continue that struggle, it will have to contend with a fundamental cause of persistent poverty today: the unintended silence of millions of impoverished people in the sphere that matters most, politics.

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This it the conclusion of a week-long series exploring the intersection of poverty and democracy in America. Read the rest of the series:

Poverty vs. Democracy in America: 50 years after Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, tens of millions of second-class Americans are still legally or effectively disenfranchised.

Should Felons Lose the Right to Vote? The poor and minorities are disproportionately locked up—and as a result, disproportionately banned from the polls.

Immigrant Voting: Not a Crazy Idea: Until the 1920s, many states and territories allowed non-citizens to cast ballots. Given their role in American society, it's worth reconsidering the practice.

Second-Class Citizens: How D.C. and Puerto Rico Lose Out on Democracy: Is there a connection between deprivation and a lack of federal representation? The people in territories without a vote sure think so.

Why Are the Poor and Minorities Less Likely to Vote? Even when America's underclass isn't formally stripped of its ballot, a slew of barriers come between them and full representation and participation.