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Rev. William Barber: Millions Are Struggling. So Why Do the Debates Ignore Poverty?

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Rev. William Barber says the 2020 election debates have steadfastly ignored the subject of poverty, even though it affected almost half the United States population before the COVID-19 pandemic and millions more people are struggling since then. “We have to stop saying that things were well before COVID,” Barber says. “The reality is, Wall Street was well.” Barber is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and president of Repairers of the Breach.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris met in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wednesday night for their only vice-presidential debate of the campaign season. On the issue of the economy, Pence argued it had been growing too slowly under the Obama-Biden administration, and made no mention of the economic collapse during the coronavirus pandemic. This exchange begins with Senator Kamala Harris.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: On the issue of the economy, I think there couldn’t be a more fundamental difference between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Joe Biden believes you measure the health and the strength of America’s economy based on the health and the strength of the American worker and the American family. On the other hand, you have Donald Trump, who measures the strength of the economy based on how rich people are doing, which is why he passed a tax bill benefiting the top 1% and the biggest corporations of America, leading to a $2 trillion deficit that the American people are going to have to pay for. On day one, Joe Biden will repeal that tax bill. He’ll get rid of it. And what he’ll do with the money is invest it in the American people. …

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: America, you just heard heard Senator Harris tell you, on day one, Joe Biden is going to raise your taxes. It’s really remarkable to think, Susan.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: That’s not what I said.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I mean, right after a time where we’re going through a pandemic that lost 22 million jobs at the height, we’ve already added back 11.6 million jobs, because we had a president who cut taxes, rolled back regulation, unleashed American energy, fought for free and fair trade, and secured $4 trillion from the Congress of the United States to give direct payments to families, save 50 million jobs through the Paycheck Protection Program. We literally have spared no expense to help the American people and the American worker through this. …

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: The American people know what I’m talking about. You know. I think about 20-year-olds — you know, we have a 20-year-old, a 20-something-year-old — who are coming out of high school and college right now, and you’re wondering, “Is there going to be a job there for me?” We’re looking at people who are trying to figure out how they’re going to pay rent by the end of the month. Almost half of American renters are worried about whether they’re going to be able to pay rent by the end of the month. This is where the economy is in America right now. And it is because of the catastrophe and the failure of leadership of this administration.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Kamala Harris and Mike Pence.

We spend the rest of the hour with Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach, joining us from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Can you talk about the framing of not only the vice-presidential debate, but the presidential debates — not only that, what these candidates are willing to talk about when it comes to issues of poverty — I don’t know if that word was mentioned even once last night — and other economic crises that people are facing, Dr. Barber?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: You know, one of the things that continues to bother us in the way in which the moderators don’t even bring up an issue that, before COVID-19, was impacting 43% of this nation. A hundred forty million people, before COVID, were poor and low-wealth, and 62 million people working for less than a living wage. And since COVID, we know that millions have been added to the poverty and low-wealth numbers. We’re well over 50% because of the new poor. We know we had 87 million people before COVID that were either uninsured or underinsured, and now some 20 million people have been added because of people who have lost their insurance because they’ve lost their jobs. Forty percent of the jobs that make $40,000 a year have been lost. And the framing, it’s amazing that we can’t start there.

I think Senator Harris did a tremendous job in pointing out the economic injustice, but one of the things I would say is we have to stop saying things were well before COVID. It’s almost as though we give that away to the Trump and Pence. The reality is, Wall Street was well. The reality is, those who got his tax cuts were well. The reality is, though, that before COVID, they were trying to overturn healthcare. Before COVID, they were blocking living wages. Before COVID, we were not addressing the issue of poor and low-wealth people. And we have to find a way to say that.

I wish the moderators would just talk about that and open it up, Amy, because 64 million poor and low-wealth people were eligible to vote in the last election. That’s nearly one-third of the electorate. Thirty-four million did not vote. And a study that we just recently did, called power unleashed — “Unleashing the Power of Poor and Low-Wealth Voters,” said that the number one reason that poor and low-wealth people did not vote — this actually was a tri-reason: They never hear their names called, their issues; the lack of transportation, and they can’t get off the job; and voter suppression. But that’s the very group that in 15 states if just 1 to 20% of them vote — Michigan, 1%; North Carolina, 19%; Florida, 7% — could fundamentally shift the electorate. And they deserve to no longer be marginalized, but to be heard and to be talked about in these debates.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Reverend Barber, I’d like to ask you about one aspect of what this widespread poverty, before the pandemic and after the pandemic, has induced, namely food insecurity. According to the Census Bureau and the Department of Agriculture, the level of hunger in U.S. households has tripled since 2019, and the proportion of American children who sometimes don’t have enough to eat is now as much as 14 times higher than last year. So, could you talk about that particular issue, and your assessment of the Biden-Harris plan, their anti-poverty proposal?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, you know, when Pence talked last night, he told what my grandmother called a bold-faced lie. The first CARES Act, 83% of the money went to corporations and banks. It did not go to the people.

And when we look at COVID-19, we know that the fissures of systemic racism and systemic poverty have actually allowed this pandemic to have a greater hold on our American society. We know that when we talk about death, we have to be exact, that it’s not just people are dying, poor people are dying. People who make less than $50,000 a year are dying. People are dying who are among the poor, whether it be white, Black —disproportionately among Black and Brown and Indigenous people, and that COVID has killed more people in the U.S. than Americans were killed in battle in five of our most recent wars — Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, the War in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf War. I mean, this is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about this devastation that’s happening among poor and low-wealth people.

And then we’re talking about the residual, the other impacts. For instance, 13 million people, one study says, that we did, who make under $50,000 a year, one in five, don’t know where they’re going to get their next food. They don’t know how they’re going to eat. You know, millions, upwards of 40 million people, are facing eviction.

One of the things I like about the fact of the Biden-Harris plan is that they are, number one, not talking about taking people’s healthcare. The Trump-Pence plan, that’s what they’re saying: “Elect us. We’ll take your healthcare.” The Biden-Harris plan is talking about raising people’s living wages, $15 an hour. The Trump-Pence plan is talking about giving more money to the wealthy. In fact, the Trump-Pence-McConnell plan, they refuse to pass a stimulus because they want another $200 billion in tax cuts, they want money for a fighter jet, and they want to protect corporations from liability when those corporations didn’t protect their people from coronavirus.

So, what we have is two different worlds operating. Pence, with a straight face, lying, basically said, “Vote for us, and we’ll take your healthcare and undermine your preexisting conditions. Vote for us, and we’ll block living wages. Vote for us, and we will not protect the environment. Vote for us. Vote for us, and we’ll put people on the Supreme Court who will be against your healthcare, against labor rights.” You know, one of the things people forget about this nominee is that she voted against people getting overtime pay.

And so, we’re living in two different worlds. Not only will Pence and Trump not acknowledge racism when it comes to police violence, they are not even acknowledging the disparate racism in economics and in healthcare, and so forth and so on. So, on the one hand, while Pence and — while Biden and Harris may not be every, fully where the Poor People’s Campaign are, they are in the world of wanting to do more. They’re in the sphere of wanting to increase. They’re in the sphere of wanting to make sure that the people have what they need, as opposed to wanting to only secure the wealthy and the greedy. And it’s tragic.

And to think that someone running for the vice president — you talk about disrespecting people — number one, not only to lie to them, but to be so bold that you literally look people in the eye and say, in essence, “Vote for me, and I’ll take from you. Vote for me in the midst of a pandemic, and I’ll take healthcare, even in the midst of all of this death. All of this death.” There’s something wrong with Trump and Pence, I mean, deep down in the soul, and McConnell and the Republicans who have decided to hold onto these positions. It’s immoral. It’s constitutionally inconsistent. It’s economically insane. And it is a form of necropolitics, the politics of death, that is contrary to everything we say we believe in on paper, like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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