Politicians Need to Experience Poverty


Having to pull items off of the conveyor belt at the grocery store due to a miscalculation and counting out nickels and dimes for a dozen eggs are both humiliating and often times necessary experiences for the poor in the United States. It is not an uncommon occurrence at many grocery stores throughout the country. Where it likely does not happen much is at the grocery stores frequented by politicians.

Indeed, the people who decide that it is okay to cut the food stamp budget again and again are the same people who never have to encounter the single mom at register #3 who just realized that it is the 20th of the month and she is out of food stamp funds. Politicians really need to experience poverty to truly understand it.

It is now a fact that over 50 percent of Congress members are millionaires. This is a big first for the nation. Almost 200 of them are multi-millionaires and 100 members are worth over $5 million. A congressperson makes $174,000 per year. That puts each and every one of them in the top six percent of American earners.

It is likely that the majority of them have never been, nor ever will be put in the position of counting change into a cashier’s hand. And yet, they control the very policies that affect the poor. According to White Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policymaking, a book by Nicholas Carnes, between the years 1999 and 2008 a mere 13 of 783 people in Congress had blue-collar backgrounds. Of course it had been decades since they had experienced any poverty. Also, many decades ago it was not a foregone conclusion that a blue-collar family was living in poverty.

While shocking, this data, at the same time is not surprising. It would require quite a coup for a poverty-stricken individual to make it in the game of politics. Just knowing the right influential people would be a major challenge, not to mention the endless fundraising. Truly, the entire scheme is devised by and for people with wealth and the rest of the nation just plays along as if that is no big deal. Apparently, it does not matter to the voters that the governance of the country occurs primarily within affluent communities.

Frankly, humanely effective policies are impossible. Without the sort of representation that not only understands but investigates the life experiences of others that they witness, there will never be a true resolution to the devastation of poverty.

In other areas of politics, experience is looked at as a prerequisite to dealing with issues like defense, economics and business. Experience with poverty, however, is not deemed necessary, even when the matter is being discussed in hearings. At one recently convened hearing by Paul Ryan for the House Budget Committee, not one person present represented the state of poverty. The hearing was called,  A Progress Report on the War on Poverty: Lessons from the Frontlines and yet there was a distinct lack of anyone who actually had experience on those frontlines. Here was an excellent opportunity for the voice of poverty to be heard and the opportunity was squandered.

It seems that the political arena lacks a true understanding of  the impoverished of this nation. If more politicians came from all walks of life, perhaps this situation could be rectified. However, by its very nature, poverty can be a stumbling block to political ascension. If those who had lived on the frontline of poverty entered the political arena, perhaps the fundraising and glad-handing would not have such a prominent place in politics. Perhaps then the wealthy would not have the only voice that is heard. In order for poverty to ever truly be dealt with in a real way, politicians will have to experience it for themselves.

Opinion By Stacy Lamy


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