Presidential candidates address poverty at ‘Poor Peoples’ forum

WASHINGTON (CN) – More than 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. spearheaded the Poor People’s Campaign to demand economic justice and an end to systemic racism, activists reviving that effort grilled Democratic presidential candidates at a forum in the nation’s capital Monday on their strategies to provide relief for the millions of Americans who currently live in poverty.

The new Poor People’s Campaign, led by Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharris, hosted the largest forum of 2020 presidential hopefuls to date at Trinity Washington University, where nine candidates – including former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders – shared their visions for ending poverty in the U.S.

Forty million people in the U.S. live in poverty, surviving off incomes of less than $12,000 a year or as members of families that make less than $25,000 a year, according to the Census Bureau. Using a different measure of poverty, the Poor People’s Campaign claims there are actually 140 million people who are poor or low-income in the U.S.

Biden, who leads 2020 Democratic primary polls, told forum participants Monday that the solution to ending poverty is to end the social divisions of race, adding that the current political system in America discriminates against African Americans and immigrants.

Biden said one of his main objectives as president would be to close some of the $500 billion of tax loopholes that currently exist, which he says contribute to both the current wealth gap and the idea of monetary scarcity in the country. The former vice president said he wants to redistribute the wealth earned through these tax credits to provide more incentives for poor families in the country.

“This is all within our wheelhouse, we don’t have to punish anybody,” Biden said. “You take away $500 billion of these loopholes; you’re not going to affect any wealthy person’s standard of living for God’s sake. This is just plain fairness. Simple, basic fairness.”

Earlier this month, Biden released a plan to address climate change that also relies upon closing tax loopholes and reversing some of the Trump administration’s tax cuts – Biden said the federal government could invest $1.7 trillion in his climate change plan with the funds derived from eliminating tax breaks for corporations.

Sanders, who is currently second in the Democratic primary polls, focused on the issue of income inequality. The senator from Vermont said that politicians in the past promised to raise wages for Americans, but today, the average American worker is making the same wages they made 45 years ago.

Sanders said income inequality in the U.S. is the worst it has been since the 1920s.

“In my view, there will never be any real change in this country unless there is a political revolution,” Sanders said. “And that means that millions of people have to stand up and fight and take on the corporate interests, the billionaire class, the one percent, and tell them that in this country, our economy and our government belongs to all of us, not just wealthy campaign contributors.”

Warren, the senator from Massachusetts who is currently third in the Democratic primary polls, said one phrase can define her 2020 campaign: “Don’t waste my pain.”

It’s a motto she coined at a Poor People’s Campaign hearing last year, after hearing accounts from several Americans of their struggles to live and raise their families in poverty.

“What has to come out of this is: Don’t waste my pain,” Warren said at the closing of that hearing. “We’re going to make change from this. Don’t waste my pain.”

She said Monday that she believes this phrase best defines this moment in the country’s political history.

Warren also addressed the distribution of wealth in America and said that the money from a 2% tax on one-tenth of wealthy one-percenters – after an individual earns $50 million – could pay for universal childcare for every child in America up to the age of 5 and make tuition free at public technical schools universities.

“If that fortune was built here in America, I guarantee it was built in part using workers all of us have to help pay to educate,” Warren said.

“So we’re just saying, you make it really big in this country, pitch in two cents so everybody else has a chance to make it in this country,” she added.

Warren’s “two-cent” tax could generate $2.75 trillion in 10 years, according to University of California, Berkeley, economists Emmanueal Saez and Gabrial Zucman.

Forum participants also heard from candidates Andrew Yang, Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Marianne Williamson, Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam, and Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

The candidate forum kicked-off a three-day event, which will culminate Wednesday when representatives from the Poor People’s Campaign will testify before the House Budget Committee on the issue of poverty and how federal policies affect income disparities in the nation.

The Poor People’s Campaign said in a statement Monday that the group invited President Donald Trump, who did not respond to requests to appear at the event.