Why Did Voters Ask Better Questions Than the Debate Moderators?

After four debates, six hours of discussion, and dozens of questions on everything from personal scandals to the economy, one thing still missing from this year’s presidential and vice presidential debates was this: a conversation about the more than 40 million Americans who live in poverty.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

The debates got off to a promising start. In the very first question of the first debate, moderator Lester Holt mentioned the record-breaking wage growth of 2015, as well as the millions of Americans who still live paycheck to paycheck. But the question itself was as unremarkable as they come: “Why are you a better choice than your opponent to create the kinds of jobs that will put more money into the pockets of American workers?” Holt failed to press the candidates on the specific policies they would pursue to fight poverty and inequality.

The second debate was supposed to be different. The moderators agreed to consider asking the top 30 questions submitted by the public through, a project of the Open Debate Coalition. Nearly four million people voted, with the most voted-on questions focusing on background checks for gun sales, expanding Social Security, climate change, and money in politics.

In conjunction with the Open Debate Coalition, TalkPoverty launched our campaign, #WhereDoYouStand, which focused specifically on questions related to poverty and economic opportunity. Literally thousands of voters asked the candidates where they stand on issues that affect low-income families—everything from equal pay for equal work to food insecurity to tax credits for working families.

But moderators ignored all of those topics in the second debate. In fact, the only question they included was a query on WikiLeaks that received a grand total of 13 votes (the 30 most popular questions that they had agreed to consider all received more than 20,000 votes).

Last night’s forum wasn’t any better. Moderator and Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace asked just one question on the economy, and it was particularly unhelpful: “Please explain to me why you believe your plan will create more jobs and growth for this country, and your opponent’s plan will not.” The only question from the Open Debate Coalition was a conservative question on the Second Amendment.

Ironically, the questions generated through the online petition ended up demonstrating how sophisticated most voters are compared to the debate moderators. Not one of the top 30 submitted questions was about a scandal, gaffe, or personal foible of the candidates. The popularity of questions about the 42 million Americans facing food insecurity or the tax rate for Social Security benefits prove that people want to hear questions about policy.

This chart from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting shows the breakdown of questions asked in each general election debate.
This chart from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting shows the breakdown of questions asked in each general election debate.

Lest we get cynical, this is progress. General election debates historically don’t take questions submitted online. The mere fact that Americans were able to vote on the questions they wanted to hear in the debates represents an acknowledgment that our voices matter.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this year’s debates, it’s that we can’t expect the media to ask about issues just because they matter to voters. The media responds to movements. Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, and Occupy Wall Street all gained attention from the media and lawmakers because they organized and gained traction with the public.

If we want the media to talk about poverty, we need to turn anti-poverty work into an anti-poverty movement.


First Person

What Living in a High-Poverty Neighborhood Taught Me About Protests

About 13 years ago, I lived in Charleston, South Carolina, where I was trying to make ends meet as a freelance writer.  The going was tough. I moved to the Eastside where the rents were lower, and the paint was peeling off the old manor-style houses. Soon, I noticed that friends were reluctant to visit me. At night, I heard the “pop-pops” that I wished were firecrackers, but knew were gunshots.

You probably aren’t familiar with the Eastside of Charleston, but you know a place like it: It’s segregated by race, and associated with poverty, crime, and violence—derogatively called “the ghetto” or “the ‘hood.” It’s the part of town that you have been cautioned to avoid.

More and more Americans who struggle to get by are living in these marginalized, disinvested communities where jobs and educational opportunities are scarce, and an increasingly militarized police force is the primary contact residents have with government. But for two years, Americans have been expressing confusion as one neighborhood after another—from Milwaukee to Baltimore to Ferguson to Charlotte—are rocked by protests, looting, and riots after the police shootings of unarmed black men.

Is it really a surprise that many of the renewed outbreaks of civil unrest have taken place in these communities?

Although the impact of living in high-poverty neighborhoods has been well documented, it’s hard to fully explain the toll it takes on a person’s body and soul. Frustration over high prices, high bills, and high unemployment rates is worsened by the bane of many a poor community—the local drug economy.

It’s hard to fully explain the toll it takes on a person’s body and soul.

The vast majority of my neighbors, young and old, did their best to avoid the drug trade. My next-door neighbor was so overprotective of his two daughters that he refused to let them leave the house after 7 p.m. I knew many teenagers who resisted it for years, but faced with no prospects for their future, or for good jobs with good pay, they decided “to go to work”—usually in the summer when they were out of school. Dealing drugs was the neighborhood summer job program. And for many young neighbors who were expelled from school (because administrators are more likely to punish black students than provide more holistic help), the drug trade was less an alternative than an inevitability.

Outsiders often criticized Eastside residents for not taking care of their own community, or not doing enough to stymie the drug trafficking. This victim-blaming ignored the roots of the drug problem—the lack of opportunity, racism, and economic forces outside of residents’ control—and it ignored the role that outsiders played. It was common to see long lines of cars that clearly belonged to nonresidents (that is, mostly whites) trolling every night to the wee hours of the morning, looking to score drugs with no concern over the consequences for families, mothers, or children trying to sleep.

I eventually saved enough money to leave the Eastside, but not much has changed since I left. The kinds of investment in the community that would have convinced me to stay didn’t exist (and still don’t). It was no wonder that those of us who lived there believed the city, state, and even the nation did not respect—or even consider—our humanity.

The Eastside is hardly unique. If you look at the statistics associated with any of the marginalized, predominantly black communities in cities that have erupted in civil unrest, a pattern becomes clear. In Baltimore, an overwhelming majority of public school students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches (which are often used as a proxy for students’ socioeconomic status). The median income in Freddie Gray’s own neighborhood is just $24,006 a year.  A Department of Justice report on Ferguson, Missouri confirmed that the municipal police department engaged in poverty exploitation by targeting blacks for traffic violations, singling them out in a city where 53% of blacks live in poor neighborhoods. Milwaukee has been called one of the most segregated cities in America.

There’s an obvious solution for these communities (and it isn’t gentrification, which simply displaces generational residents). The solution lies in more targeted investments—for example, in jobs or education programs—that give people a chance to succeed. The bleak situation for the 13.5 million people in high-poverty neighborhoods must be ameliorated, or else somewhere, sometime soon, civil unrest will break out again.


First Person

How to Turn Anti-Poverty Work Into an Anti-Poverty Movement

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to spend a weekend at Harvard with a group of about 20 scholars and reporters. Many of them have worked for decades examining poverty-related issues—from hiring discrimination to segregation in housing and education, criminal justice reform to immigration, deep poverty to homelessness.

I was nervous about the trip. The combination of the venue—and the fact that I had long-admired many of the participants—led me to double-check the invite to make sure I was the intended recipient.  For sure, I was the guy.  So, even though my mother insisted that I needed new shoes to set foot on that campus, I packed my scuffed-up loafers with their separating soles and flew to Boston.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but it wasn’t this.

There was some consensus around a handful of policies that would lead to greater progress in the fight against poverty—more affordable housing and access to cash assistance, a fair wage and affordable childcare, public schools that aren’t separate and unequal, substantial investment in disadvantaged communities.  But there was a question that took me by surprise. Even though they had devoted their lives to fighting poverty, some of the participants asked whether their work made any difference at all.

More pointedly, a few asked how their work can help make people in power—particularly white people—do something about poverty.

The fact is, people in power don’t take action unless they are pushed by a movement.  Civil rights, women’s rights, and marriage equality all required movements.  Recent legislative victories such as passing the Affordable Care Act, winning $12 to $15 minimum wages, and implementing paid sick and family leave at the state and local level—all of these were made possible through movement-building at the grassroots too.  And so whether we work as reporters, researchers, advocates, or elected representatives, if we want to cut poverty in America then a key question is whether our work lends itself to building an anti-poverty movement—a movement that is desperately needed.

Despite the recent progress noted by the Census, there are still 43 million people who are officially poor. Nearly half of us are living paycheck-to-paycheck, unable to come up with $400 should an emergency arise.

There are signs of a nascent anti-poverty movement.

With such widespread economic hardship, it’s not surprising that the people with the most immediate stakes in the fight against poverty—the poor and working class—are beginning to take action. There are signs of a nascent anti-poverty movement—from Occupy Wall Street to the Fight for $15; from the Dreamers to Black Lives Matter; from Bernie Sanders’ rise as a viable presidential candidate, to the spread of Moral Mondays, to Climate Justice.

Reporters, researchers, and others invested in this fight have the power and the resources to support these efforts.  Together, our analyses can offer a portrait of who is poor and why, and explore the public policy implications; we can lift up voices and lives that are normally ignored or caricaturized by the media; we can include people living on the brink in high-profile events that explore poverty and in our advocacy efforts.

We are too often failing at this. When then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan held a series of five hearings on the state of the War on Poverty, 17 witnesses testified—but only one (called by the Democratic Minority) lived in poverty.  A recent, all-day Brookings event on the lessons of welfare reform featured 25 speakers, but only two people of color and zero people in poverty.  And at strategy meetings among well-resourced, allied NGOs, poor people are heard from far too infrequently.

This exclusion of people in poverty is not only strategically stupid—would you talk about the impact of farm policy without talking to farmers?—it also reinforces a stigma and sense of shame among people who are struggling. We are implying that they don’t matter, that they have nothing to offer, that they are flawed, that they should remain on the sidelines while more “respectable” or “respected” people make the decisions that affect their lives—and that’s a message people in poverty have been hearing loud and clear for generations.

But by simply writing or speaking the truth about poverty, we help to create a platform where struggling people can be heard; and by fighting back against the shame and stigma of poverty, we play a small role in empowering people in poverty to take action politically.

So does the work of researchers and writers and advocates matter?  It sure does—especially if that work is opening new spaces for an emerging movement to grow.



Lawmakers Want to Close the Loophole That Pays Disabled Workers Pennies An Hour

Recently released Census data reveal that, in 2015, the poverty rate dropped significantly for most demographic groups. One of the only groups who didn’t see an improvement were people with disabilities: the percentage of disabled Americans (age 18-64) living in poverty increased from 25.9% to 26.5%. For Americans without disabilities, the poverty rate decreased from 14.1% to 12.8%.

The data suggest the challenge disabled people face in trying to escape poverty.  But there is hope that an emerging bipartisan consensus on disability employment may mark an important step in the right direction.

Currently, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a certified “sheltered workshop” can pay disabled Americans less than the minimum wage—sometimes as little as pennies per hour. As a result, approximately 400,000 disabled Americans are paid a subminimum wage, which makes it more difficult for them to work their way out of poverty.

It’s a relic from a time when our politicians embraced other draconian ideas like eugenics

For decades, activists were unable to get even top labor Democrats like former Senator Tom Harkin—a key sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act—to challenge this labor law. Harkin, like many Democrats, argued that it was a key policy that helped people with disabilities get needed training for better jobs.  However, studies show that rather than finding higher-quality jobs, the overwhelming majority of these disabled workers spend their careers continuing to earn the subminimum wage.

Ari Ne’eman, who was appointed by President Obama to the National Council on Disability, says the subminimum wage is an outdated idea. “It’s a relic from a time when our politicians embraced other draconian ideas like eugenics,” says Ne’eman. “This is 1930’s thinking.”

Fortunately, a movement to extend the minimum wage to disabled workers has now spread to four states and has reached the federal level as well.

In 2003, Vermont was the first state to eliminate the subminimum wage for persons with disabilities. Instead of paying nonprofits to employ these workers at a subminimum wage, the state invested those funds in wraparound services to help employers accommodate workers with disabilities. Rather than reducing the number of jobs for disabled workers, as critics of the policy had predicted, the employment rate for disabled workers rose—it is now double the national rate.  In the last five years New Hampshire, Oregon, and Maryland have followed Vermont’s lead.

At the federal level, President Obama raised the minimum wage for tens of thousands of disabled federal contractors working in “concessions and concession industries;” and Labor Secretary Tom Perez has said  that he wants all states to eliminate the usage of the subminimum wage to employ persons with disabilities.

Now there is also bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate for the TIME Act, which would ban the subminimum wage and provide funding to help transition disabled workers into mainstream employment.

Republican Congressman Gregg Harper, whose son has Fragile X syndrome, is a cosponsor of the legislation. Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI), who is paralyzed, and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-WA), whose son has Down syndrome, are also supporting the push to pass the bill.

“For many of these people, it’s because they have family members with disabilities,” says Allison Wohl, Executive Director of the Association of People Supporting Employment First.  But she says education also plays a role.  “It’s universal—the reaction you get when you tell a hill staffer about the subminimum wage. Their face drops and it’s clear they don’t know what to say.”

Ne’eman hopes that the space created on both sides of the aisle to tackle low wages among disabled workers will lead to more creative thinking about how to raise wages for all workers.

“We call it the curb effect,” he says.  “Just like the [ramp at the] curb also makes it easier for [pedestrians with] a piece of luggage or a stroller.  It ends up helping everyone.”

So far it’s unclear if the legislation is going to move in this Congress, but advocates remain hopeful. These days, even the possibility of Republicans and Democrats coming together to support pro-worker legislation is a rare thing. And many in the disability and labor communities hold out hope that passing this bill will be the first of more victories that lie ahead.



The Gig Economy Is Screwing Over Workers—And It Needs to Stop

For the past few years, we have been inundated with think pieces about the gig economy. They feature vignettes of Americans working flexible hours to pick up extra cash: the graduate student who drives for Uber in his spare time, the stay-a-home parent who brings in extra spending money with EasyShift, the high school student picking up odd jobs on TaskRabbit. Whether it is being praised as the newest innovation in work-life balance or a massive new industry that will displace traditional work relationships, we live in a period that touts the “gig economy” as the latest great phase of modern work.

If this were actually true, I would praise the dawn of a new era too—especially one where, for once, more people could have access to equal parts work, rest, and recreation. But this trend is actually just a collection of familiar, exploitative business practices re-packaged as a positive 21st century development.

Gig executives are using the hipness of company brands to mask age-old practices. Companies lure workers by projecting their apps as the new, fast way to achieve the American dream of being your own boss. And at first glimpse, the gigs may seem that way. As Guardian columnist Arun Sundararajan wrote last year, “this explosion of small-scale entrepreneurship” looks like Adam Smith’s capitalist ideal of “a genuine market economy of individuals engaging in commerce with one another.” The problem is that these self-employed entrepreneurs have very little autonomy. They aren’t setting their prices, outlining the scope of their development, or even determining what car to drive—the company still maintains control over those decisions.

There’s only one situation in which gig companies are willing to cede control to individual workers: when something goes wrong, and someone needs to be held accountable. In those cases, gig companies try to minimize their relationship with their workers. This is particularly clear in two recent lawsuits against Uber. In the first case, two women attempted to hold Uber accountable for the sexual harassment they experienced from a driver. The company claimed the driver was an independent contractor—not an employee—and thus they weren’t liable. In the second case, workers sued the company for mileage and tip reimbursements that they currently have to cover themselves. Again, the company argued that the workers aren’t employees—and that making them employees would undermine their business model by damaging driver flexibility and adding too many costs. So far, judges in both cases have decided against Uber (in the first case by allowing the lawsuit to proceed, and in the second by rejecting a proposed settlement that the judge felt was “not fair, adequate, and reasonable” for the drivers).

Companies’ goals are the same as always: to keep their costs low while maximizing profits

Classifying workers as independent contractors is key to many gig companies’ strategies, since gig workers are paid the same (or less) than formal employees and receive significantly fewer benefits such as health care, paid sick leave, or workers’ compensation for injuries. And at the end of the day, gig companies’ goals are the same as always: to keep their costs low while maximizing profits.

To be clear, I am not against the gig economy or the tech innovations that have made it possible. The issue is that the gig economy is sold to workers as a type of empowerment, but the actual jobs are designed to hold them back. Flexibility for workers does not automatically gel with the on-demand needs of company executives. Both parties need room to negotiate—which is most effective when workers are able to unionize.

Unsurprisingly, gig execs militantly combat workers who attempt to form unions. Again, Uber is an illustrative example: when Seattle granted its drivers the right to unionize, the company instructed its customer service reps to call through a list of drivers to explain why unionizing was a bad idea (a spokeswoman defended the practice in a statement, saying “it’s not clear a traditional union can serve such a large and varied group of people.”) The company also has a history of “de-activating” drivers who lead unionizing efforts (and its major competitor, Lyft, has been accused of similar tactics, though spokespeople for the companies have denied the allegations). NYU professor Aswath Damodaran explained that unions will ultimately hurt companies’ bottom lines, saying “they are likely to shake up the current revenue-sharing balance.” In other words, union workers get more of the total share, and that makes the execs nervous. And so it pays to keep gig workers from organizing.

So while the inevitability of the “gig economy” is upon us, it is far from the worker-powered revolution that companies are marketing. But workers at many gig companies are experimenting with different ways to negotiate over their conditions, from Seattle to New York and overseas. They are proving that the only thing inevitable about the gig economy is that, as with business innovations of the past, working people will eventually figure out how to organize. And frankly, it would save us all a lot of time if gig companies simply came to the table.

This article is based on a presentation given at the American Sociology Association national conference in Seattle 2016.