Poverty, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the Free College Tuition Debate

January 16, 2020

Shawn Fremstad

During the January 14th Democratic Presidential Debate, as part of the discussion of whether tuition at public college should be free for all, Pete Buttigieg had this to say

“There is a very real choice about what we do with every single taxpayer dollar that we raise, and we need to be using that to support everybody whether you go to college, or not, making sure that Americans can thrive….Investing in infrastructure — and something that hasn’t come up very much tonight, but deserves a lot of attention: poverty.”

As part of his response, Buttigieg mentioned the Poor People’s Campaign, some of whose members had demonstrated outside before the start of the debate. 

But it’s worth pointing out that the Poor People’s Campaign has specifically called for “free tuition at public colleges and universities and an end to profiteering on student debt.” Similarly, PPC supports single-payer universal health care for all and a broad range of other social security policies. Finally, PPC doesn’t have a particularly minimalist or narrowly targeted conception of poverty and economic insecurity. In their demands, they highlight the bottom 43 percent of income distribution (people with incomes under 200 percent of the supplemental poverty line in 2017, or roughly $56,000 for a family of four) not, say, the bottom 10 percent. 

This is consistent with other research finding that roughly 40 percent of Americans are poor, at risk of poverty, or otherwise economically insecure. To be successful, a progressive plan to substantially reduce poverty and insecurity needs to build solidarity among them and with people who are securely in the middle-class, but feel stressed by the cost of child care, health care, higher education, and potential threats to their security. 

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