WASHINGTON, D.C. — Francine Jefferson of Tchula, Mississippi, prefaced her question to former Vice President Joe Biden, explaining that her hometown, in the poorest county in America, has experienced devastating flooding with little support from the federal government.
“Poverty hurts,” said Jefferson, taking full advantage of the moment to speak up for the people in her community and drawing a chorus of affirmation from other impoverished people in the crowd.
“How will your administration respond to national disasters, climate change and poverty?” she asked.
Jefferson was among the participants in a presidential campaign forum Monday that featured nearly half of the leading Democrats running for the 2020 presidential nomination.
In response, Biden pointed to his campaign’s global warming initiative, then shifted the conversation to a full-throated description of his record as a U.S. senator and vice president to fight for the poor.
Nine presidential hopefuls at the forum included Biden, of Delaware; and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). They made their usual campaign pitches at the forum at Trinity Washington University before an audience that rarely sits at the center of national political conversations: poor people.
The gathering was hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call of Moral Revival, a year-old group led by the Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis. It was broadcast online by MSNBC and moderated by Joy Reid, the cable network’s national correspondent.
Other Democratic candidates at the forum included: Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Florida, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and author Marianne Williamson. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro was scheduled to attend, but missed the event because his flight was cancelled due to severe weather.
The Poor People’s Campaign said it sent invitations to the Republican National Committee and to President Donald Trump, but neither replied.
Unlike nearly every other high-profile presidential gathering this campaign season, Monday’s forum made a point of allowing impoverished Americans to directly ask questions of the candidates about how they would improve the lives of the poor.
Barber noted that of the many hours devoted to televised debates and candidate forums during the 2016 campaign, none devoted a single hour to a discussion of poverty in the nation.
“If you’re not in the narrative, you’re not going to be in the policy,” the minister said. “The narrative of poverty in America has been removed; it’s not even in the public discussion.”
At one point in the forum, the Rev. Terri Hord Owens, president of the Disciples of Christ Church in the United States and Canada, asked candidate Marianne Williamson about her views to end systemic racial discrimination.
Williamson didn’t miss a beat, launching into her call for reparations for African American descendants of slavery and attacking all past political leaders for being timid about addressing racial issues.
“We need a moral and political revolution in America,” Williamson said. “By electing me the next president, it will signal and demonstrate that you agree and the nation agrees with what I’m saying.”
The presidential forum was the highlight of the Poor People’s Campaign’s three days of meetings and organizing in Washington, D.C.
Organizers also released a report — the “Moral Budget: Everybody Has a Right to Live” — that framed most of the questions posed by the audience of activists, organizers, and advocates for poor Americans.
Pointing to the findings in the study, Barber said Americans don’t know the facts of poverty in America, noting that 43.5% of the nation — approximately 140 million people — live in poverty, including 39 million children and 21 million people over the age of 65.
He said it would likely come as a surprise to many Americans that more white people (66 million) are poor than the combined number of African Americans (26 million), Latinx people (8 million), and Asian Americans (2.1 million) who are poor.
Barber added that the goal of the forum and the subsequent meetings this week is tp compel the presidential candidates to pay attention to the issues that disproportionately harm poor people.
“Any nation that ignores half its people is in a moral and economic crisis that is constitutionally inconsistent, economically unstable and morally insane,” he said to thunderous applause.
“The first goal of this campaign,” said Barber, “is to shift the narrative.”