MILWAUKEE (CN) — The first-ever convention meeting of the Democratic National Committee’s Poverty Council was held Thursday, where its members brought together the twin scourges of racial and economic inequality with the unabated Covid-19 pandemic and offered policy-based solutions as well as scathing critiques of President Donald Trump.
Susie Shannon, who works as executive director of the Poverty Matters advocacy group, spearheaded formation of the Poverty Council before finally getting the green light from the DNC and holding the council’s first official meeting in 2019. Shannon works extensively with impoverished communities in Los Angeles, a city whose surging homeless population is estimated to include more than 60,000 people.
The Poverty Council “was created to build political power for people that are at or below the poverty level” and to provide a platform for voiceless groups, according to Shannon, who recounted her own experiences living in motel rooms as a child when her family faced homelessness.
The virtual meeting quickly got down to connecting the dots between the coronavirus pandemic’s wrath on the economy and the underserved communities bearing its brunt, as Shannon called to mind a recent Aspen Institute report showing up to 40 million people are at risk of eviction in the next several months due to the housing crisis caused by Covid-19.
“When you live paycheck to paycheck and those paychecks stop coming, what happens?” she said. “What we’re seeing now is mass eviction, people that can’t pay their rent, can’t work through no fault of their own,” as local eviction moratoria expire nationwide and no federal extension is on the horizon.
A trio of California political heavyweights weighed in next, as U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee, Karen Bass and Maxine Waters joined the meeting to decry economic injustice as a veritable pandemic on its own, much less when conjoined with the novel coronavirus.
Lee applauded the long-awaited opportunity to have a council meeting on poverty, recalling how hard the fight was just to get part of the Democratic Party platform explicitly dedicated to tackling poverty as recently as the 2012 national convention.
Even though passage of the Heroes Act would be a good start, Lee stressed that undoing systemically racist policies which exacerbate poverty will require massive public investments to address food insecurity, expand social security and create policies “that treat housing as a basic human right.”
Given the inaction and indifference from Republicans on these issues, Lee admonished that “there is no way Democrats should not be talking about this each and every day.”
Bass, once considered a progressive-friendly potential running mate for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, agreed that the party needs to not shy away from “institutional barriers that frankly keep people poor.”
But Bass also focused on the nation’s child welfare system, which she said “too many times removes children and breaks up families because we refuse to address poverty and issues like addiction and mental illness.”
Perhaps best known for partisan clout acquired by publicly locking horns with Trump, Waters used her time Thursday to drub predatory payday lenders that set up shop in poor communities and trap people in their debt with loans that sometimes charge interest rates of nearly 400% and repeatedly roll over when borrowers cannot repay them.
Payday lenders, however, are only one part of the “tricks, traps and systems that strip wealth from low income communities and keep them trapped in poverty,” Waters said.
The California congresswoman offered that the Emergency Housing Protections and Relief Act she co-sponsored and helped pass through the House in June would provide $100 billion for an emergency rental assistance fund, $75 billion for a housing assistance fund, and would extend eviction and foreclosure moratoria put in place by the CARES Act through March 2021.
Dr. Cameron Webb, a Virginia physician running for Old Dominion’s 5th Congressional District seat, brought a health care perspective on the cross-relational impacts of Covid-19 and poverty to Thursday’s discussion, noting that multiple barriers to affordable, available health care is a concern for Black and brown communities who disproportionately make up essential workers on the frontlines of the virus and are often congregated by discriminatory housing practices in areas already ravaged by it.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, a prominent professor of sociology at Georgetown University, concurred that essential Black and brown workers are having to “leverage the authority of their consciences” to risk infection in order to provide services to more privileged people.
Webb outlined this classist dilemma as the disparity between “Zoom fatigue” and “Covid fatigue.”
Another conversation between Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and newly elected Los Angeles City Council member Kevin de León touched on the unsurprising commonality in trends of who lives in low income housing, who has access to capital, who has food security and retirement security, and who is imperiled by Covid-19.
Lightfoot said such problems in the Windy City include developers not building enough family units due to a lack of incentives and homeless encampments needing bathrooms and hand washing stations to slow spread of the coronavirus, but “candidly, what we need is continued help and focus from the federal government.”
California having the fifth largest economy on Earth and also being the epicenter for homelessness in the U.S. is “a mark of shame,” de León said. The former state senator reiterated that the country has not done a good enough job mitigating circumstances in coronavirus hotspots to the detriment of those who need help most and have less options.
“Poor people can’t Zoom their work,” de León said.
Former Clinton-era Secretary of Labor Robert Reich also made an appearance at the Poverty Council meeting Thursday and clarified that while “poverty and inequality have a certain abstraction to them…it’s about lots of people that are living very close to the edge.”
Poor people cannot climb the socioeconomic ladder due to 40 years of stagnant wages and a shrinking middle class, Reich said, which is only made worse by bad policy like Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporate interests based on a trickle-down theory of economics, even though “nothing ever trickles down.”
In the most unequal industrialized nation on the planet, Reich lamented that “billionaires are raking it in” as the stock market soars, “but people who do not have stock are doing worse and worse” in a lopsided economy reminiscent of the late 19th and early 20th century Gilded Age rife with “the shameless profiteering on misery in a system rigged by the fortunate few.”