Can America's "sleeping giant" shake up the election? Let's hope so

This year is the perfect time for the Poor People's Campaign

Published February 11, 2024 9:02AM (EST)

Rev. Dr. William Barber (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
Rev. Dr. William Barber (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

It’s ironic that in 2024  the very fate of our republic rests entirely in the hands of the nation’s 85 million low wage potential voters, roughly a third of the American electorate that society and the corporate news media regularly ignore.  It’s the common Beltway wisdom that these folks at the base of the pyramid are marginal to the political conversation as compared to the vaunted middle class upon which both major parties have for so long fixated on.

It’s the product of a perverse feedback loop that was flagged by a Columbia University study undertaken of the 2106 electorate with the support of the Poor People’s Campaign, which studied the low-wage voter cohort and found a majority of them did not vote and when they were surveyed they explained they didn’t turn out because they didn’t hear candidates discuss issues that had any relevancy to their lives.

Columbia University researcher Robert Paul Hartley found that only 46 percent of voters with household income less than twice the federal poverty rate cast a ballot in 2016, as compared to a 68 percent turnout rate for voters who had a household income more than twice the poverty line. “They’re saying that they’re not voting because people are not speaking to their issues and that they’re just not interested in those candidates,” Hartley, told the New York Times  “But it’s not that they couldn’t be.”

It’s a kind of conundrum. Low-wealth voters are left out of our deliberations and sit on the sidelines, their disengagement reinforced by voter suppression, and campaign consultants use their MIA status to justify the pursuit of that white suburban voter they feel more comfortable with anyway.

The Poor People’s Campaign is planning simultaneous actions on March 2 at over 30 state capitols.

Like so much Beltway wisdom that failed to flag the rise of Donald Trump and the Insurrection, it is seriously flawed and informed by racism, classicism, and condescension as well as by a corporate media looking to capture eyeballs that can afford a Viking cruise.

In 2016, in key rust belt states where unions were part of the historic Democratic base like Michigan, Trump won thanks to depressed African American voter turnout and the lack of engagement of the multi-racial cohort of economically struggling voters that polls show overwhelming support for reproductive rights, a living wage and universal healthcare.

In 2016, Trump carried Michigan by just 10,000 votes. 980,000 low-wage voters did not turn out. If. 1.1 percent of those voters had bothered the results would have been different. Michigan was no exception. In North Carolina, Trump’s margin of victory was 170,000 votes while 920,000 poor and low-wealth voters sat it out. If just 18.9 percent of those disengaged voters had been motivated to go to the polls history would have bent another way.

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In the House of Representatives in 2022, now held by Speaker Mike Johnson, R-LA., an unapologetic insurrectionist, the GOP won control by just 3,500 votes in five tight House races.

In 2020, in Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin the Biden-Trump faceoff was really tight, close to just 3 percent. In Texas, a Republican bastion for decades, the margin was just over 5 percent. The numbers don’t lie. If voters want to vote the GOP into extinction they can do it by waking what the Rev. Dr. William Barber calls the “sleeping giant” that’s the low-wage, low-wealth multi-racial voter cohort.

That might yank the Democratic Party of Sen. Joe Manchin to the left considerably but we will have saved the republic just the same. This is too high stakes to be left to the courts.

This week in Washington at the National Press Club the Poor People’s Campaign, under the leadership of Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, announced their plans for a mass mobilization of 15 million poor and low-wealth voters nationwide ahead of November’s election. They were joined by respected pollster Celinda Lake, President of Lake Research Partners.

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"In 2024, the election is going to be about mobilization,” Lake told reporters. “There is no question that the biggest contest between the two parties is going to be who can get their voters out to vote. Democrats have an enthusiasm gap today, and the progressive alliance and Democrats have fissures within their constituency that makes getting out the vote even more important. The biggest bloc of potential voters by far is low-income, low-wage voters. Increased participation even by miniscule percentages could be game changers. It is a massive voter engagement that is being started here today.” 

Lake’s analysis was certainly born out in the recently concluded South Carolina Democratic Primary where President Biden easily prevailed but what has professional Democrats worried was the anemic turnout in a state where Black voters are pivotal and voter engagement has been downhill since President Obama.  In the 2008 primary over a half-million turned out, close to a quarter of the registered voters. In the most recent Democratic contest just over 130,000 came out, less than five percent of the state’s voters. 

In 2016, in a ‘proof of concept’, the Poor People’s Campaign targeted specific low wealth and low wage voters in several states including in Georgia where they identified and mobilized 36,000 previously unengaged voters that helped produce the margin of victory in the pivotal U.S. Senate races won by Rev. Raphael Warner (D-GA) and Jon Ossoff (D-GA).

The Poor People’s Campaign is planning simultaneous actions on March 2 at over 30 state capitols to launch “the campaign and highlight the policies being promulgated in state houses across the country that are hurting the poor or distracting from addressing the real issues facing poor and low-wealth people,” according to the PPC. The targeted states include Alabama, Arizona, California, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.

“For far too long extremists have blamed poor people and low wage people for their plight while moderates too often have ignored poor people, appealing instead to the so-called middle class while the poor and low wage people have become nearly half of this country,” Barber told reporters. “Poor and low wage people have the power to determine and decide the 2024 elections and elections beyond. In the 2016 election there were 34 million poor and low wealth people eligible to vote but didn’t. These voters made up more than a quarter of the electorate.” 

Barber continued: “Poverty is now the fourth leading crisis of death in America, a moral crisis in America taking the lives of 800 people a day and this is before and after COVID…These are the issues that must be at the center of the narrative of a democracy in our country. If we are serious about saving the democracy it can’t be some philosophical term. Saving the democracy must be a Third Reconstruction where people are paid a living wage—where people have health care—where public education is fully funded and where voting rights are protected and expanded.”

Barber called out by name eight moderate U.S. Senate Democrats that in 2021 joined with the Republicans to defeat raising the minimum wage to $1 from the $7.25 where it has been stuck since 2009 when Obama was president. Speakers at the press conference referenced Congress’s decision to roll back the expansion of the Earned Income Child Tax Credit, which caused a major spike in childhood poverty and the Biden administration’s decision to let states “unwind” Medicaid when the White House declared the pandemic was over. As a consequence, several million people lost their subsidized coverage including over three million children. 

“We are mobilizing, organizing, registering and educating people for a movement that votes, votes for healthcare and debt cancellation, votes for living wages and string anti-poverty programs and votes for fair taxes and the demilitarizing  of our communities and world,” said Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis who noted that since the last presidential election close to 1,000 voter suppression bills have been introduced “that impacts poor and low income people the most.”

Dozens of local leaders from the state chapters of the Poor People’s Campaign were on hand in person and virtually for the high spirited kick off including Janice Guzman, an organizer with the Massachusetts Poor People's Campaign and SEIU 1199.

"I work for MassHealth as a Personal Care Attendant, helping to take care of people with disabilities and who are sick and need help with their daily activities. But I do not have health insurance myself,” Guzman told reporters.  “I am an essential worker living paycheck-to-paycheck and I have to make decisions every day. Do I put gas in my car or do I pay my bills? Or do I put food on my table?,” said Janice Guzman, an organizer with the. “This is why I am organizing with the Massachusetts Poor People's Campaign. We have got to get our power as people, get back the mic, raise our voices and register voters. Forward together!"

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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Commentary Elections 2024 Poor People Rev. Barber Working Class