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‘We won't be ignored any more’: the untapped power of poor US voters in 2020

For Sarah Fearrington, a former fast food worker living in North Carolina, no one should be defined by poverty. “There’s no reason for anyone to be poor,” she said, because “poor is not a person”.

Long before the current coronavirus-triggered recession, Fearrington knew poverty first hand after going from working in healthcare to waitressing following a move south from New Jersey.

Seldom do candidates speak to her issues as a married, mother of six children (some with asthma) who lost her job due to the pandemic. But in the the 2020 presidential race she wants her voice – and the voice of millions like her – to be heard.

“I’m not a part of the bigger picture, but I am the biggest picture of us all. We have every right to be a part of something so much bigger than ourselves,” she said as a part of a virtual town hall on poverty with the Poor People’s Campaign. “So I’m coming for my politicians to say if you’re not going to pay attention I’m going to make you.”

Poverty affects more than 38 million people in America and new research suggests they represent a vast reservoir of votes. A report for the Poor People’s Campaign found that, between Democratic nominee Joe Biden and incumbent Republican Donald Trump, the candidate who addresses issues of poverty like Fearrington’s could take advantage of untapped votes in key swing and battleground states.

The study suggests that attracting the votes of the poor and mobilizing poor people to go to the polls could prove decisive in the 2020 fight.

According to the report, of the country’s 63 million registered low-income or poor voters, 34 million did not cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election. It determined an increased turnout among just one to 7% of poor and low-income Americans could have a substantial impact on 2020 Senate races.

“If the low-income electorate showed up at the same participation rate as high income voters, it could swing the election in 10 states that were previously Republican, and five states that were previously Democrat,” said Robert Paul Hartley, the study’s author and a professor of economics at The Columbia School of Social Work, durning a virtual press conference

An increase of at least 1% of the non-voting, low-income electorate would equal the margin of victory in the 2016 presidential election in Michigan or a 4% to 7% increase in states such as Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin,” the study notes.

But low income and impoverished voters still have to turn out, and first they must register to vote. Voter turnout reached a 20 year low in 2016, but an unprecedented year marked by a recession and racial uprising following the killing of George Floyd has sparked a surge among mostly, young and progressively Americans, many who will be voting for the first time.

Shelton McElroy of Louisville is one of them. Formerly incarcerated, McElroy was disenfranchised until the Kentucky governor, Andy Beshear, pardoned him. Now associate director of operations for the Bail Fund, McElroy says this election is about making sure his children see their father as an example of using your voice and vote as power.

“I get to demonstrate voting in front of my little girls, took them with the primary with me,” he said, noting the general election “means a lot to [his] family” after watching his state senator, Mitch McConnell, lead Republican efforts to curb stimulus payments.

“We want to vote for people who actually share our interests,” he said. And as momentum builds, a worsening coronavirus pandemic has now infected more than 5 million Americans, killing nearly 160,000. The crisis has disproportionately hit Black, Latino and indigenous Americans, especially those who are poor or low-income.

More than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the pandemic hit. Critics note the president’s recent executive order temporarily halting the payroll tax will do little to relieve the $600 weekly unemployment benefits that expired with the Heros Act to combat the economic effects of the outbreak, only further jeopardizing programs like social security.

As the economic disaster bites deeper many expect a housing crisis to follow. The Aspen Institute estimates between 30 million and 40 million people “could be at risk of eviction in the next several months”.

The Rev Dr William J Barber, the Poor People’s Campaign’s national co-chair, argued that although poverty has rarely been front and center in presidential campaigns trail, that’s now changing.

“Poor people were in a depression before Covid. [They] are saying we won’t be ignored any more,” he said. “So the question is will poor and low-wealth Americans have a major place on the ballot and conventions? So we are challenging both parties to say you cannot ignore poor and low-wealth families any more.”

Barber added considering the urgency of this seemingly monumental election, two candidates every chance he gets. But given the misery enveloping large swaths of the US electorate, Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will have no choice but to address it.

“Changing the political landscape is critical,” he said. “The interlocking injustices that must be addressed simultaneously, that’s systemic racism and systemic poverty, are not marginal issues.”

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