Why Does the Democratic Party Refuse to Address Poverty
photo: Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez listens to a speaker as he chairs an executive committee meeting at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Summer Meeting in Chicago, August 23, 2018. (Reuters / Daniel Acker)
By Alan Minsky, Executive Director – Progressive Democrats of America | The Nation
A DNC Poverty Council was formed by a new progressive member, but the staff has blocked it from functioning.
Susie Shannon is a warrior for the poor and homeless. An activist from Southern California, Susie recognized something in the early 2000s that millions of progressives are starting to realize now: If she wanted to make a difference and actually improve people’s lives, she not only had to engage with the Democratic Party, she had to enter it.
In doing so, Susie didn’t alter her politics one iota; rather, she was instrumental in building the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party, for which she is now a presiding officer. Susie also shepherded a homeless-housing bill all the way through the California State Legislature to the governor’s desk and didn’t relent until she had Jerry Brown’s signature. In 2016 she was a Bernie Sanders delegate; and the following year she became the only elected Bernie delegate from California to become a member of the DNC.
Not wasting any time, Susie wrote a resolution prior to the Chicago DNC meeting in August 2018 to form an official Poverty Council of the DNC. She knew that underserved communities needed a seat at the table to build political power and raise awareness about issues related to poverty across the country. In doing so, Susie was following the proper protocol, as official councils are how the DNC addresses important issues or focus groups.
This is where the story turns, and becomes an object lesson for progressives.
Shortly after submitting the resolution, Susie was contacted by DNC staff members who rejected the proposal for a Poverty Council and altered the resolution to make it a toothless reaffirmation of the Democratic Party’s commitment to poverty issues, with no establishment of a Poverty Council.
As the author of the resolution and a member of the DNC, Susie had a right to reject a recommendation from the staff. She told them on the phone that the changes were unacceptable and she would not agree to a simple reaffirmation. Despite her rejecting their changes, the staff sent out their version in the first meeting notice sent to the DNC members. At that point, Susie drafted a formal demand letter to the staff to reinstate the original language to create a Poverty Council, along with a demand to resend the resolution to DNC members so as to meet notice requirements. The staff told her they had sent the wrong version by mistake and reinstated the original language.
Susie was more than disappointed by the DNC staff’s rebuff of the Poverty Council. After all, there are DNC Councils on interfaith communities, small business, youth, veterans, etc. When Susie arrived at the DNC meeting in Chicago, she was told by a co-chair of the Resolutions Committee that her resolution would likely be tabled. Undeterred, she spoke directly to DNC Chairman Tom Perez, who assured his support. Perez’s support Susie’s original proposal passed unanimously out of the DNC Resolutions Committee as well as on the floor of the DNC general session.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story.
Susie set about planning the inaugural meeting of the Poverty Council, reaching out to legislators, stakeholders, and those living in poverty to speak at the opening session of the committee at the upcoming February 14–16 meeting of the DNC in Washington, DC. She contacted the staff of the DNC in October to inquire about the dates for the winter DNC meeting and the scheduling of the Poverty Council. For months, she was told to wait. The agenda was not ready yet. The secretary of the party told her he was conferring with his staff on when specific councils would meet. Still, Susie proceeded with the planning and received interest from Congresswoman Maxine Waters and others in speaking at the opening session. Two weeks ago, one day from the deadline for the publication of the DNC agenda, Susie was contacted by the DNC staff and told that they were not going to put the Poverty Council on the agenda (even though other councils would officially be meeting). This, in effect, would have blocked the council from functioning.
However, Susie refuses to be daunted. She has reserved a conference room at the Washington Marriott Marquis hotel, the same hotel as the DNC meeting, on her own dime (which is not cheap! Susie is looking for donors to help defray costs). She is going to convene a meeting on poverty issues during one of the least busy hours that the DNC is meeting. Susie has invited legislators, stakeholders, and those impacted by poverty to speak and help shape a Democratic Party agenda for 2019.
That’s where things stand right now.
“The council was designed to build a political base and create a national legislative agenda for the 40.6 million people living at or below the poverty line,” Shannon says. The council is intended to make sure that “every candidate, elected official and party leader should have an anti-poverty platform leading into the 2020 election. Part of being a Democrat is to help underserved communities and, ultimately, give people an opportunity to live their lives in dignity.”
Given all of this, the question must be asked, why does the DNC (and, by extension, the establishment wing of the Democratic Party) refuse not only to address poverty but really even to acknowledge its existence? Are they frightened that the Poverty Council will make morally compelling claims that are not a part of their “electoral strategy”? Are they afraid that the council will make proposals, such as a right to housing or a guaranteed income, that would be met with disapproval by Wall Street backers who insist upon balanced budgets? Whatever the reason may be, doesn’t their fear of addressing poverty mean that they are tacitly accepting mass poverty as a constant in American society?
This is not a new question. By Bill Clinton’s presidency the shift away from supporting programs designed to address poverty became official party policy, echoing the Republicans mantra of self-help. Of course, poverty rates remained more or less constant. During Obama’s presidency, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West launched their poverty tour because of the president and the party’s refusal to even say the word, let alone do anything about poverty. Similarly the on-going Poor People’s Campaign explicitly operates outside of a party that refuses to seriously address an endemic social problem that conservatively has many tens of millions of Americans in its grips.
What is new is that following the miraculous success of the 2016 Sanders campaign, and the election in 2018 of truly radical voices like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib to Congress, left progressives are engaging with and entering the Democratic Party like no time in recent memory. The emergence of a powerful social-democratic tendency inside the party means that the party’s reluctance to seriously address poverty is going to be challenged.
This is a difficult battle that progressives simply have to win. Given the current realities of the American political system, if the Democratic Party is unwilling to tackle endemic poverty, there’s no available avenue to address this reality of American society and we truly are condemning millions upon millions of people to misery.
Of course, just getting the party to address the problem is only the beginning. Changing policy is the next hurdle; and that’s an even higher one. The prevailing ideology of the past four decades, call it neoliberalism or market fundamentalism, embraced by the mainstream of both parties, offers no solution to American poverty. Rather, it tacitly accepts it as part of the landscape. So an alternative poverty policy will, by definition, fly in the face of Democratic establishment orthodoxy. In other words, we’re going to meet resistance. Fortunately, we have tireless warriors like Susie Shannon to lead the way, who won’t rest until poverty eradicating policies are put into practice that actually work.
“As long as there are families without food, children living in motels, and people forced to live on the streets and in shelters,” Susie says, “we will be pushing in the halls of Congress, in state legislatures, and in the Democratic Party.”
Susie Shannon’s Poverty Council is meeting Friday, February 15 from 5:30 to 7:30 pm in the Union Station Room of the Washington Marriott Marquis Hotel. The event is open to Democrats and members of the community. A lineup of speakers from federal, state, and local government have been confirmed. All of the presidential candidates have been invited to speak, and Kamala Harris’s campaign has confirmed a spot on the agenda. Our Revolution President Nina Turner; Larry Cohen, the former head of the Communication Workers of America and the board chair of Our Revolution; Mayor Treney Tweedy from Lynchburg, Virginia; and staff from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, as well as other stakeholders will be part of the agenda.
The DNC did not respond to requests for comment for this article
Alan Minsky is the Executive Director of the Progressive Democrats of America. Alan is also the producer of the The Nation‘s podcast Start Making Sense with Jon Wiener.