As a lesbian, the wife of a disabled Native American, and a hereditary welfare recipient, the matters of politics have always been extremely important to me. With the sweep of a pen, someone in a suit in D.C. or my state capital of Augusta, can authorize a pipeline, legalize my marriage, or lower my wife’s disability check, permanently changing my life and the lives of members of my family, and yet very few of the people in those positions come from the world I come from. Few of them have been on welfare, have had to go to food banks or stood in line at a soup kitchen. Among the drive to bring more diversity to political offices, I believe we also need to bring people from my socio-economic class to the table.
In 2016 I attended a seminar on welfare reform. One of the few who got their early enough to have a seat, I was surrounded by standing people in the small overfilled hotel meeting space. Eager Democrats listened to Maine Speaker of the House, Mark Eves. They asked questions like, “How do we help these people find childcare services?” and “What is being done to help low-income people complete college?” I quickly realized that very few in that room were speaking from a place of experience. I was surrounded by middle-class and upper-class people with incredibly good hearts who want to help, but have little idea what it’s like to actually walk in my shoes.
At one point in the discussion a young man raised his hand and said, “I’m going to graduate with my BA next spring. How is the Democratic Party going to help make sure I can make a high enough income to not need welfare once I graduate?” There was a moment of confusion. So much of the discussion had been about getting low-income people into college that this seemed to halt the conversation. In that silence I said loudly, “I already have a bachelor’s degree and I still rely on food stamps.” There was a literal gasp in the room. Until that moment I believe many of the people in that room truly believed that people with college degrees don’t need food stamps. Statistics tell us an increasing number of college graduates are unable to find sufficient work, but statistics can tell us only so much if we don’t actually see the faces.
I’ve spent most of my life below the poverty line, as have many members of my family. My mother has a Master’s Degree, and my father an Associate Degree. Due to the low salaries teachers receive, my father’s health issues and eventual permanent disability, and numerous other chance circumstances, there was one winter my entire family shared a single room at my grandmother’s house to avoid homelessness. Weeks before that we had been living in an unheated summer camp in the woods, using an outhouse and bathing in the lake, after getting evicted from our rental property. I have vivid memories of the excitement I would feel when my mother came home with a giant box of canned goods from the local food bank. I registered for food stamps at 18 years old, and have received some sort of government assistance for most of my adult life.
At the recent Democratic National Committee forum in Baltimore, the sentence, “We need to get out there and listen more,” kept coming up, and this is absolutely true. When I talked to local low-income people about this subject a neighbor named Dallen Delgado said, “A lot of speaking for people happens, but there’s not enough speaking to people.” But the Democratic Party needs to take that one step further. As the party that talks so often about wanting to work for low-income people, we need not to just listen more, but we need to elevate the voices of low-income people so others have to listen as well. We need people who have been low-income at the face of the party, running for office, sitting in committees and attending conventions. Listening to us makes a huge difference, but we have an understanding about what it’s like to be poor in America that just can’t develop from listening to stories. We need to be able to be actively involved, and it isn’t going to be easy.
Delgado, like many other low-income people, is well-educated on modern politics and always votes, but finds it very difficult to attend meetings and events, or participate in volunteer opportunities with the Democratic Party. He can’t afford both childcare and transportation to attend, not to mention purchases that have to be made at these events. At the Maine Democratic Convention in 2016, I was very upset to discover that we weren’t able to bring food into the venue. I had to leave behind sandwiches I had made for my diabetic wife and I had to decide whether we were able to scrape together enough money to buy overpriced hot dogs, or if we were going to have to forfeit our positions as delegates. I have approached leaders of the party about this and they have said they would take that into consideration next convention. However, if we already had people in leadership positions with the convention who understand what it’s like to live on an extremely limited income the situation could have been foreseen and avoided.
A change in administration may put a bigger dent in the savings account of a middle-class person, but for someone who is on welfare it can mean homelessness, or not being able to access medicine, or food. What looks like a “temporary setback” for the Democratic Party, can literally mean life-or-death for the people in my neighborhood. When I asked Nina Benning if she felt the Democratic Party was working for her she said, “As a low income worker it feels like no one cares about me.” A large part of this comes from the fact that the stereotypes persist, making those who don’t fit the stereotypes (the majority of us) feel invisible.
The wage gap is growing. Articles about adjunct college professors who need food stamps show up on social media sites all the time. People who never thought they would be low-income, are finding themselves in that position, and that growing voter base needs to be recognized, and validated by the party that claims to work for them. We need real people to take real places standing up and saying, “This is what it’s like to live with my income” so that others can see who we truly are. If we remain just a talking point at debates, the stereotypes about who we are and where we come from will persist. The Democratic Party needs to lead the way in making us visible to the rest of the world in a real way. Like Symone Sanders said in a recent episode of NPR’s podcast 1A, it is “important that there are young, fresh new perspectives that are able to come into the party and have a voice, not just a seat at the table for show.” One of those perspectives absolutely needs to be people who are or have lived below the poverty line.