Kimberly in California just landed the biggest break of her life: a job at a gas station through her aunt. Eighteen and with no place to go, she’s riding the Greyhound cross-country to work on a prayer and a dime. Her dream is to open a childcare center someday to give other kids on welfare a better start than she… Richard in Alabama can’t seem to shake off his criminal record since he finished his four-year prison sentence for robbery. The penalty continues to this day for the jobless electrician, with his lack of voting rights, his limited chances of employment, and his exclusion from public benefits. Darryl next door is not much better off since he spent three weeks in jail for panhandling… Melanie in Oklahoma is struggling to pay for her online design degree so that she can get off disability and on her feet again. She’s had a long road back to hope since her nursing career was cut short by a drunk driver and she emerged with crippling seizures and $800 a month on which to live because she couldn’t afford a lawyer…
These four American citizens are imperfect like you and I, but that’s not all. They are members of an American underclass, fifty million strong, that is defined by poverty incomes, limited education, a stubborn lack of opportunity, and sometimes plain misfortune. Their stories challenge our cherished assumptions about the American dream. Consumed by the daily demands of subsistence and excluded from political participation by formal and informal means, they struggle to make their voices heard where it matters most: in politics. Their poverty is a problem – a moral outrage, in fact – but it’s not the kind of problem we think. Yes, it is partly economic: a lack of income and opportunity. Yes, it is partly social: a space apart from mainstream society, absent the educational and cultural tools needed to get ahead. But first and foremost, their poverty is political: it is embedded in the very structures of society and maintain-ed by an unfair distribution of political power. Put differently, American poverty is a democracy problem.
To understand American poverty and its connection to our democracy, political reformer Daniel Weeks traveled some 10,000 miles through 30 states by Greyhound bus interviewing citizens in poverty between 2012-14. To deepen his experience of American poverty, Daniel maintained a poverty-line budget of $16 per day, eating a restricted diet and spending nights in public parks and homeless shelters, on buses or bus stations, and in home-stays over his six weeks in the field. From benches on Capitol Hill to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, from the desert colonias of Texas to Skid Row in L.A., his profiles and careful analysis help put a human face on poverty and political inequality in the age of Obama.
The Poor (in) Democracy project 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 democratic life. The work concludes with a menu of trans-partisan governmental reforms aimed at combatting poverty by strengthening American democracy.