Where do the 2020 presidential candidates stand on poverty, climate change, taxes, and military spending?

Over 140 million Americans — or 43 percent of us — are poor or low-income, according to research by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Poor People’s Campaign. That poverty is compounded by the interlocking injustices of racism, militarism, and ecological devastation. It was caused not by poor personal decision making, but by massive public investments in policies that benefit a tiny few at the expense of the rest.

The good news? We have abundant resources to fix it, our Poor People’s Moral Budget report shows. All we have to do is get them out of the military, Wall Street, and the mass incarceration industry and into programs that actually work for the public.

When we launched our Moral Budget with the Poor People’s Campaign, we asked nine 2020 presidential candidates if they had the political will to put those resources to work for the public.

The 2020 Candidates

IPS and the Poor People’s Campaign invited all 2020 presidential candidates to a June 2019 candidate forum to take questions from campaign leaders and poor people based on this research and their lived experiences. Nine Democrats — including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and others — attended. President Trump refused.

Workers, Wall Street, and Wealth Taxes

Candidates broadly agreed with our diagnosis of poverty — especially that it’s much more widespread than official statistics reflect.

Senator Kamala Harris, for example, echoed our research showing that 40 percent of Americans can’t afford a simple $400 emergency, and that the federal minimum wage is a poverty wage that doesn’t meet even modest housing costs anywhere. And Joe Biden echoed our finding that nearly half of Americans are poor or low-income.

Sen. Kamala Harris: “Minimum Wage is A Poverty Wage”

Vice President Biden: Almost Half of Americans Live in Poverty

A major reason for the suffering of these communities is underinvestment, especially the huge tax cuts that have concentrated more and more wealth in the top 1 and 0.1. percent. Our Moral Budget identified a stunning $886 billion in additional annual revenues we could raise by repealing the Trump tax cuts and levying a wealth tax on extreme fortunes.

Other candidates agreed that finding resources for more robust investments in poor and working people is a question of priorities, not abundance. Biden endorsed our proposal to repeal the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy, while Andrew Yang pointed out that Washington has always found money for Wall Street.

Vice President Biden Says He’d Repeal Trump’s Tax Cut

Andrew Yang Says Washington Always Has Money for Wall Street

Most ambitiously, Senator Elizabeth Warren endorsed a wealth tax on extreme fortunes to fund a broad array of programs, including universal childcare and pre-K, free higher education, student debt cancellation, and programs to combat the opioid crisis.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren Says a Wealth Tax Could Fund Childcare, Higher Ed, and More

Ending Endless War

Military spending regularly consumes around half or more of the federal discretionary budget. That funds destructive overseas wars that don’t make anyone safer, while starving American communities of badly needed resources that would go much, much further at home.

We identified $350 billion that could easily come out of our extremely bloated military budget every year by winding down our endless wars, closing our hundreds of overseas bases, and refusing to subsidize military contractors. Even after these cuts, our annual military budget would still be larger than China’s, Russia’s, and Iran’s — combined.

Andrew Yang unequivocally agreed with our call to cut military spending, and Elizabeth Warren agreed that it was time to reorient our foreign policy away from endless wars.

Andrew Yang Says We Must Cut Military Spending

Sen. Elizabeth Warren Agrees it’s Time to End Forever Wars

Alone among the candidates at the forum, Marianne Williamson explicitly endorsed our call to cut $350 billion from the $700-plus billion we currently spend on the military every year. She paired that call with demands to repeal the Trump tax cuts and subsidies for fossil fuel companies.

Marianne Williamson Endorses Our $350 Billion Pentagon Cut

Climate Change as a Poor People’s Issue

Climate change isn’t a crisis of temperature alone, but also of poverty. People of color, along with low-income communities of every race, suffer the effects of climate change “first and worst,” and are much, much likelier to be exposed to polluted air and water.

But failure to address the climate catastrophe will come at an enormous cost to the entire economy, we found, with damages totaling 15 percent of our GDP. Investing in addressing it now is essential to preventing this damage — and to protecting the low-income communities already suffering the worst effects of it.

Joe Biden agreed that climate change impacts people in poverty disproportionately, while Elizabeth Warren added that environmental issues are poor people’s issues and promised to impose a moratorium on offshore drilling and mining in national parks.

Vice President Biden Says Climate Change Impacts Poor More

Sen. Elizabeth Warren Says Environmental Issues are Poor People’s Issues

The Costs of Mass Incarceration

The caging of immigrant adults and children, like the rest of the prison contracting industry, is a for-profit business that violates the basic human rights of thousands while costing taxpayers billions. Together, police, courts, and private contractors run the costs of mass incarceration upwards of at least $179 billion annually.

At our forum, Kamala Harris vowed to get rid of private detention facilities.

Sen. Kamala Harris Vows to Get Rid of Private Prisons

A more hidden cost of mass incarceration plays out in our democracy. Our research shows that denying the vote to people during or after their incarceration can increase recidivism, which racks up a huge social and economic cost while limiting participation in our democracy by some of its most impacted populations. 

Alone among the candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed protecting the right of incarcerated people to vote.

Sen. Bernie Sanders Says Let Incarcerated People Vote

Economic Rights As Human Rights

Our Moral Budget connects all these issues directly to our spending priorities. Our research proves that there are both large savings and huge returns on investment to be had from taking our money out of wasteful systemic injustices and putting it into programs that help ordinary people. But beyond the budgetary math, we believe these investments are necessary because they’re the right thing to do — that none of us should live without basic rights to health, security, democracy, and a livable planet, regardless of what we look like or where we were born.

In his own address to the forum, Senator Bernie Sanders argued that economic rights are human rights.

Sen. Sanders Says Economic Rights are Human Rights

Support in Congress

The candidate forum was followed by a hearing before the House Budget Committee, where members of the Poor People’s Campaign testified about their experiences and urged members to re-prioritize funding that currently goes to the military, mass incarceration and immigration detention, tax cuts for the wealthy, and other injustices towards investments that would help all of us lead dignified lives.

Several members of Congress indicated that this agenda would enjoy their strong support. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, for example, argued that there’s nothing unpatriotic about cutting military spending while listening to testifier Chris Overfelt, a veteran, describe how the Pentagon (and U.S. foreign policy more broadly) siphons money from taxpayers and poor people all over the world into the pockets of powerful corporations.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Veteran Chris Overfelt Say There’s Nothing Unpatriotic About Cutting Military Spending for Corporations

Reps. Barbara Lee and Ilhan Omar each gave strong, sweeping endorsements to the values and goals expressed in our report.

Rep. Barbara Lee: Budget Recommendations Put Us on a Path to Ending Economic and Racial Disparity

Rep. Ilhan Omar: There’s Nothing Charitable About Denying Housing, Healthcare to Americans

As Rev. William J. Barber II told Congress while holding up our report, “we came here with a plan.” The Moral Budget is a powerful analytical and moral document that we’ll use for years to frame spending priorities, identify alternatives, and hold politicians accountable to poor and working people.

Rev. William Barber Tells House Budget Committee “We came here with a plan”

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