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Poor and low income people need to vote


“There were fifteen Presidential debates in 2020,” thunders the Rev. William Barber, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival ( I’ve heard him make this point many times, and sometimes the exclusion so rankles him that he shifts from conversational mode to preacher mode, with all the thunder that comes with the shift. According to Barber, not thirty minutes was devoted to poverty in any of the fifteen debates. No wonder poor folks don’t vote – few talk to or hear them. So they stay home.

Politicians might pay more attention to their issues if more poor folks voted. Instead, many Republicans consider poverty some kind of a moral failure. And while Democrats tend to promulgate policies that provide some assistance at the bottom, they often couch them in terms that do not appeal to people experiencing poverty. For example, I recently talked to a young brother who says he will not vote. He says neither Democrats nor Republicans appeal to him.

When I spoke to him about some things the Biden-Harris Administration has done to benefit the Black community – including infrastructure spending, HBCU assistance, and more. The young man said he doesn’t go to college and doesn’t plan to. “Politicians don’t care about poor people, just the middle class.” Nothing I said could convince the young man that voting made a difference. He described voting as a “trick bag” and made vaguely insulting comments about “old Black civil rights people” (was he talking about me?) who put too much faith in the system. I didn’t have the energy to argue with the young brother. I have little faith in the system, but, as I told him, you can’t win if you don’t play, and Black folks have to play the politics game. You do, I don’t, he said. I guess that was the last word.

Rev. Barber hopes to ignite this young man and the many others who stay home. He says that a third of the electorate (85 million people) are poor and low-income and comprise between 34 and 46 percent of voters in battleground states and more than 20 percent in all but five states. That means, in a 2020 election, where the victor won by fewer than 100,000 votes in three key states, poor people may hold elections in their hands. Their failure to vote reminds me of the Biblical “dry bones” that turn to flesh. Today’s dry bones are uncast votes that might make a difference in the 2024 election.

The Poor People’s Campaign, co-led by Rev. Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharris, Director of the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary, will convene the Mass Poor People’s and Low Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington on June 29, 2024. Barber tells me this is not just a march but a movement to drive people to the polls. He avoids endorsing candidates, preferring to drive voters to the issues.

One of the critical issues is the lives we lose to poverty. University of California Riverside public policy professor David Brady said that 183,000 people die annually because of poverty, the fourth leading cause of death. Heart disease, cancer, and smoking take more lives – obesity, diabetes, drug overdoses, suicides, firearms, and homicide take fewer. These lives lost represent an economic drain on our nation. Those who die because they are poor could be working or contributing to society. Additionally, the resources we spend on their end-of-life care could be used more productively. Poverty is a scourge for our nation, but it is not a priority for our nation’s politicians.

“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Predatory capitalism is cannibalism. It is taking more than is needed for selfish gain, to exploit those who are at the bottom of the totem pole, and to demonize them. Dr. King’s War on Poverty attempted to address poverty and get poor and low-income people involved in their destinies. Rev. William Barber is a worthy successor to Dr. King. We can all support his activism by showing up in D.C. for the March on Washington on June 29.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author and former president of Bennett College. She is based in Washington, D.C. Contact her through