Announcing: “Democracy in Poverty: A View from Below”

Cover50 Years After Voting Rights Act, New Book Exposes Gaping Holes in Voting and Representation

Harvard Safra Center ebook available on Amazon

What is the connection between poverty and politics today? Does money determine a person’s political voice? Is poverty a democracy problem? To tackle these thorny questions, political reformer Daniel Weeks traveled 10,000 miles through thirty states by Greyhound bus, speaking with hundreds of fellow citizens living in poverty and recording his experiences on a poverty-line budget of $16 a day. From benches on Capitol Hill to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, from the desert colonias of New Mexico to Skid Row in L.A., his profiles and careful analysis put a human face on poverty and political inequality in the 21st century.

Building on the 2014 “Poor (in) Democracy” series for The Atlantic, this book explores the complex relationship between institutional poverty and political power, including how economic inequalities enter the political sphere and undermine political equality; how political arrangements deepen and entrench poverty; and what it means in real life to be poor and (seek to) participate in politics. Highlights from the research findings include:

  • 45 million Americans are currently living below the poverty line on less than $6,000 per person per year or $16 per day
  • Nearly half of all impoverished Americans subsist in deep poverty with annual incomes of less than one-half the federal poverty line – the highest point since recordkeeping began in 1975
  • Low-income people are less than half as likely to vote in most elections as their wealthy counterparts and face a wide range of practical barriers to exercising the franchise
  • Roughly 25 million adults of voting age are legally barred from voting or lack voting representation in Congress
  • The largest single campaign contributor in 2012 provided more money than 98% of Americans combined
  • Issues primarily relevant to lower income Americans account for 4% of legislation in Congress and command less than 1% of lobbying resources
  • Americans in the bottom half of the income distribution command less than 5% of political power across five core dimensions of democratic participation

The stories Weeks recounts in the words of “second-class citizens” across the United States challenge our cherished assumptions about the American dream. Consumed by the daily demands of subsistence and excluded from political participation by both formal and informal means, the people profiled are struggling to make their voices heard where it matters most: in politics. Their persistent poverty is a problem–a moral outrage, in fact–but it’s not the kind of problem we think. More than an economic or social concern, their poverty is political: it is embedded in the very structures of society and maintained by an unjust distribution of political power. To counteract systemic poverty and political inequality, Weeks proposes a slate of reforms aimed at strengthening American democracy, so that all citizens can make their voices heard.

Democracy in Poverty: A View from Below (2015) was published by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and is available on Amazon for the poverty-line price of $0.99. Funding for the research was provided by the Safra Center and by the Carsey School for Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

To contact the author or schedule an interview, please write or call (202) 596-1706.

To learn more about the book and Poor (in) Democracy project, please visit

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Telegraph: Bus tour of poor America on $16 a day

Nashua Telegraphdt.common.streams.StreamServer.cls / OCT 22, 2014

NASHUA – “Richard,” a 28-year-old Montgomery, Ala., man, is the first to admit he “did some stupid stuff” that led to him to drop out of school then drop in to a federal penitentiary to serve time for some armed robberies. Now 28 and out of prison, Richard is nevertheless saddled with the “felon” label, a red flag for potential employers, an automatic banishment from public housing and food stamps. Given all that, it might seem incidental that Richard’s felon status also means he cannot vote.

But to well-known writer and activist Daniel Weeks, Richard’s case is an example of a far greater problem, and illustrates quite clearly the complex relationship between institutional poverty and political power that leaves people like Richard with little if any hope for a political voice.

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WMUR: 1 in 5 working families in NH is low-income

NH’s Business on WMUR TVWMUR / JUN 8, 2014
A new analysis of New Hampshire’s working poor in the June issue of Business NH Magazine shows that 1 in 5 families is low-income and 4 in 10 jobs pay wages that are below or near the poverty federal line, even as the cost of housing and other basic needs continue to soar. Author Daniel Weeks and Business NH editor Matt Mowry discuss the findings with Fred Kocher, host of “NH’s Business” on WMUR TV (ABC) in Manchester, NH. [Watch the interview]

Business NH Magazine: Who Are the Working Poor?

BNHcoverBusiness NH Magazine / JUN 2014
(Excerpted from the Magazine) Does America’s longstanding vision that work and reward go hand-in-hand still hold true today? … For millions of citizens born and raised in difficult circumstances, “working poor” is not an oxymoron. Five years after the Great Recession officially ended, the number of low-income workers in the United States has swelled to the highest rate in over 25 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fully half of American jobs now pay less than $33,000 per year and one in four pay poverty-level wages of $22,000 or less. The National Employment Law Project reports that 60 percent of all jobs lost during the Great Recession were in mid-wage occupations while 59 percent of jobs gained through 2012 were in lower-wage occupations; meanwhile, the number of high-income jobs lost and gained was unchanged at around 20 percent. As a consequence, Americans in the bottom income quintile now receive the smallest share of income–3.3 percent–since record-keeping began in the 1960s, according to the Census Bureau. In sharp contrast, the share of income gains flowing to the top 1 percent from 2009-2012 reached 95 percent, according to U.C. Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez.

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Interview: Voting And The Cycle Of Poverty

NHPRThe Exchange on NHPR / JAN 15, 2014
Behind the numbers are the experiences of America’s poor, which, more often than not, go unheard. This divide is the problem that N.H. writer and activist Dan Weeks addressed in the project he undertook last year, to travel around some of the poorest areas of the country by bus and see poverty close up, as well as the ways that it intertwines with a lack of political voice. Today we’ll talk with him about the series of articles he wrote for The Atlantic on his trip and what he saw. []

Atlantic Series: Second-Class Citizens

atlantic1Poverty vs. Democracy in America

The Atlantic / JAN 6, 2014 / Comments: 122
50 years after Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, tens of millions of second-class Americans are still legally or effectively disenfranchised. [Read article]

atlantic2Should Felons Lose the Vote?

The Atlantic / JAN 7, 2014 / Comments: 278
The poor and minorities are disproportionately locked up—and as a result, disproportionately banned from the polls. [Read article]


atlantic3Immigrant Voting: Crazy Idea?

The Atlantic / JAN 8, 2014 / Comments: 33
Until the 1920s, many states and territories allowed non-citizens to cast ballots. Given their role in American society, it’s worth reconsidering the practice. [Read article]


atlantic4How D.C. and Puerto Rico Lose Out on Democracy

The Atlantic / JAN 9, 2014 / Comments: 84
Is there a connection between deprivation and a lack of federal representation? The people in territories without a vote sure think so. [Read article]


atlantic5Why Are the Poor and Minorities Less Likely to Vote?

The Atlantic / JAN 10, 2014 / Comments: 231
Even when America’s underclass isn’t formally stripped of its ballot, a slew of barriers come between them and full representation and participation. [Read article]


atlantic6How to Solve America’s Democracy and Poverty Crisis

The Atlantic / JAN 10, 2014 / Comments: 86
Hardship is undermining the the nation’s core values. Here are a few steps to help re-level the playing field. [Read article]

Sojourners: To Whom Do They Answer?

sojo1Sojourners / MAR 26, 2013 / Comments: 4
When budgeting breaks down on Capitol Hill, politicians make excuses while ordinary people pay the price. So it is with the recent sequestration saga, where the failure of official Washington to prevent across-the-board spending cuts comes at a crippling cost for the “least of these” God’s children – $85 billion a year, to be precise. As discretionary spending is slashed 14 percent below 2010, nothing will be spared save the entitlement programs and tax expenditures that are the actual cause of the nation’s growing deficit. [Read article]