9 Democratic Presidential Candidates Talk Poverty, Systemic Racism At Poor People's Forum

Religious leaders and activists organize first ever presidential forum on poverty.

Photo credit:Getty Images

| June 22 2019,

8:39 pm

On Monday, nine of the 24 Democratic presidential candidates addressed issues of poverty and systemic racism at a forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Poor People's Campaign. This coincided with the campaign's release of its "Moral Budget: Everybody Has the Right To Live" report, which did a deep dive into the root causes of poverty. The report found that America has more than enough resources to meet the needs of the country's 140 million poor and low-income people, as well as to rectify systemic injustice.


The nine candidates—Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Rep. Eric Swalwell (CA-15), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), spiritual advisor and author Marianne Williamson and entrepreneur Andrew Yang—were given time to make brief statements and then took questions from those directly impacted by issues of racism, poverty, ecological devastation and militarism. Julián Castro (D-TX) was scheduled to attend but was unable to make it due to a canceled flight related to weather conditions. Donald Trump was also invited but failed to respond to the invitation. 

Before candidates took to the stage, the co-chairs of the Poor People's Campaign, the Revs. Dr. William Barber II and Dr. Liz Theoharis explained why a presidential forum focused specifically on poverty is necessary. "We are here because, in 2016, we went through the most expensive presidential campaign in U.S. history without a serious discussion or debate about systemic racism or poverty," Barber said. It was a point he brought up again directly with candidates when he asked each of them if they'd be willing to commit to a televised debate on these issues. Eight of the nine responded yes. 

Wayne Messam, a first-generation American born to Jamaican parents, was asked about his plan for an immigration system that protects families and puts an end to racist attacks against immigrants of color. He responded that "our broken immigration system is racist..and the way our immigration system is enforced is immoral," while also noting the lack of will in Washington to take on immigration reform. Messam also talked about the student loan crisis as a cause of poverty and his plan to eradicate student loan debt in order to create an economy that works for everyone.

Rep. Eric Swalwell received a question from a long-term McDonald's employee who wanted to know what the Congressman would do to ensure that workers receive $15 an hour and have the right to join a union. Swalwell agreed that all workers deserve to make a living wage, while also stating that poverty is not a condition that is "God made" but instead "is manmade."

One of the most powerful questions of the forum came from two black elementary school students from Boston, who asked Marianne Williamson what she plans to do about the opioid crisis. "Why are there needles all around our school?" one of them asked. 


Williamson answered, "Needles are around your school because there are people doing things that are very, very bad for them. And they are doing things that are very bad for them because life is so hard for them...and our job is to create a society in which more people are happy, and more people aren't desperate, and more people just want to do good, happy, peaceful things." 

Though its presidential forum has ended, the Poor People's Campaign continues its work. Its three-day conference in Washington ends on June 19th, after which they will continue their advocacy work with clergy, activists, organizations and leaders in over 40 states.