The Working Poor & the Middle Class: Friendly Advice for Presidential Candidates

Dear Candidate,

I am happy that you have announced your campaign for the Presidency.  I admire your long and effective public service. You talk compellingly about the middle class. However, except for two of the candidates, it is rare for you to refer to working class or low-income or poor people, and make their issues more central. For example, during a campaign event of one of you, when asked to talk about poverty, the candidate replied that “when you talk about poor people it offends middle class people, who are the voters.”  You have been an effective and fierce champion for middle class people. I would like to make the case for why you should also become a fierce advocate for the poor and working class, deliberately and visibly.

Below are some talking points that might be more skillful and less dismissive of low-income and working poor people, and truer to our core values as a nation.  I was a founding staff of YouthBuild USA where I worked for 30 years helping to develop a leadership development and life changing program for young adults from low-income backgrounds.  In this work, I came to intimately know hundreds of young people, and saw their talent, intelligence, and the aspiration to make a difference.  But national politicians write them off, so they disengage.  The same is true for their parents and others in low-income communities. I think we can and should do better.  There are five reasons for doing so. Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.

1.         Today’s middle-class person is tomorrow’s working class or low-income person. Hard working middle class people in today’s economy are often a short distance away from being unemployed, having their jobs sent overseas, having their company bought up and cannibalized by bigger global companies, and might soon feel much more in line with issues facing low-income people.

Middle class people are really a section of the working class.  They work for someone else, they are not in charge of the company, are not the owners for the most part. They are clearly part of the 99%.  They often play the role of managing the structures and institutions of the 1%. However, because they have been rewarded for this role by somewhat higher pay and benefits, and generally have access to better and more formal education, they have come to think they are separate from working people, and come to identify more with the 1%, in hopes of either becoming part of the 1% if they strive hard enough, or at least secure their futures by being acceptable to the owners. However, both studies and lived experience tell us that this is a myth: upward mobility happens for the rare few, while many are worse off than their parents.  So middle class people would be better off being allies with the working class and low-income people, and supporting candidates that are aligned with interests of working people. 

2.         I am my brother’s keeper, my sister’s keeper. In recent times, we have lost one of the central values the great religious and spiritual traditions at the heart of our culture — each of which in its own way embraces this ethic: we are our brother’s, and sister’s, keeper. The social compact of caring for all our citizens has given way to selfishness, suspicion, blaming, and exclusion. It has weakened the social fabric of our nation. Today, there are 47 million people who live below the poverty line, including 22% of all our nation’s children. This is sinful and shameful. Who have we become that we don’t care for “the least among us”?  Many blame low-income people for their situation. Many middle class people, feeling pinched by a worsening economy and worries about their own security, fall prey to the arguments that we have to cut funding for Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies, and homeless shelters in order to cut the deficit, balance the budget, and cut taxes so that “you can keep more of your own hard-earned money.” This falsely pits middle class against working class and poor people, and weakens the caring for all of our citizens. We should revive and support attitudes and policies that reinforce the kindness and generosity that lie deep in our core nature.

3.         We’re all in this together.  It is short-sighted to not include the issues of poverty and rising inequality when considering the well-being of our nation. It’s as if a middle class person, sitting on the other side of the row boat from working class or low-income person, notices a leak on the other side and says, “Hey, there’s leak over there.  You better start bailing!”  Rather, we’re in the same boat: what affects one affects all. For example, food stamps cost the taxpayers $65 billion a year, whereas policies and programs that provide jobs turn government-dependent people into tax-paying citizens.  Caring in the form of investment in “the least of these” creates more prosperity and safer communities.   

4.         Low-income people are an “opportunity”. Case in point, there are 6.7 million young people who are out of school and out of work.  Formerly referred to as “at risk” or “disadvantaged”, they have recently been called “opportunity youth,” for two reasons: they need an opportunity, and they are an opportunity.  They need an opportunity for better education, workforce training, leadership development, and positive pathway to the future. Public and private investment in programs like YouthBuild, Year Up, Public Allies, AmeriCorps, and similar programs have helped millions of young people turn their lives around.  And with this kind of investment, they turn into an untapped opportunity for the nation in terms of energy, creativity, the desire to make a positive contribution to society, a needed workforce, tax-paying citizens, healthy parents, and future community leaders.

5.         Poor and working poor people could be an electoral force.  Low income people are largely ignored by politicians because they don’t vote.  They don’t vote for a variety of reasons, including: feeling that voting won’t make any difference in their lives; despair that things will ever change; a perception that politicians lie or are “not for real”; feeling that the issues are too confusing to figure out; and never hearing their own well-being as a focus of political debates.  And often they are the targets of efforts to suppress the vote.  But if candidates included issues of immediate importance to people in low-income communities, if they put the issues of poverty on the main stage, if they included low-income folks in the campaign in genuine ways, if they communicated respect and genuinely reached out to marginalized folks while making the links between middle class issues and issues of poverty and prosperity, if they visited low-income communities and really listened, if they had the courage to fiercely defend the interests of low-income people from attacks, and so on, then I think we would see an definite uptick in voter engagement among poorer people.  If low-income people were mobilized for the right reasons, they would be a force in politics.  This would take time, but the longer we wait, the longer it will take.  Expanding democracy to truly include those historically on the margins is the right thing to do, not just to win elections, but because we come closer to the ideals of liberty and justice for all. 

With respect and deep appreciation of your courage and commitment,

John Bell.  Belmont, MA

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John Bell is a Buddhist Dharma Teacher who lives near Boston, MA, USA. He is a founding staff and former vice president of YouthBuild USA, an international non-profit that provides learning, earning, and leadership opportunities to young people from low-income backgrounds. He is an author, lifelong social justice activist, international training facilitator, father and grandfather.  His blog is www.beginwithin.info and email is jbellminder@gmail.com.(19)

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