Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Tomorrow’s Elections, from the Perspective of Legal Aid Clients

Rachel Rintelmann, Staff Attorney

The presidential election is less than a day away.  Both sides have articulated and re-articulated their positions on all of the issues they view as critical.  Throughout the long run-up to the election, there has been much discussion about issues impacting the middle class.  But, far less mention has been made of the 46.2 million Americans living in poverty (1 in 5 people in DC).

As a poverty lawyer, I have my own ideas about what is important to our client community.  But, it seems to me that the best way to understand the issues confronting those who live in poverty is to ask them.  So, I spoke to several Legal Aid clients about the issues that matter most to them this election season. Though my poll was hardly scientific, it did help me better understand some of the issues of most concern to low-income people in the District.

Ms. J says that her primary concerns are jobs, education and affordable housing.  She is a proud parent of three college students or graduates, the eldest of whom will be graduating with a PhD in psychology next year.  She says that she believes that the primary and secondary educational systems need to be improved in order to give more students access to a college education.  She also worries about the cost of college, and says that her children have paid for their education with scholarships and loans.  Ms. J also emphasizes her belief that there needs to be more affordable housing for people like herself. “We need someone to get rid of all of the slumlords,” she says, “and we need to focus on making sure people aren’t becoming homeless.”

Ms. B says that she believes that, instead of cutting programs for the poor, the government should focus on creating more effective programs to help lift people out of poverty. “If they funded programs in a better way – not just so someone can get a job for six months and then be unemployed again – but something that is actually going to build someone a career in the job market.  This is what will be helpful for the country,” she says. “They should focus on training for jobs where there is actually a need.”  Ms. B also thinks there should be a greater investment in education: “That saying, ‘the children are our future,’ is true. If our children are not trained properly, we will lose doctors, professionals, people we need to be a strong country.” 

Mr. S hasn’t missed the chance to vote in an election since 1976.  When asked what issues are most important to him, he mentions global warming and access to affordable healthcare, the latter of which is more relevant to his everyday life.  Mr. S currently works two part-time jobs for minimum wage, and is ineligible for healthcare benefits through either position. “More and more companies are avoiding giving people benefits by not hiring them as full-time employees,” he says. “There have been times in the past when I have earned barely too much income to qualify for government insurance programs, but not enough income to afford private insurance.” But, he says, if he pays for private insurance, he won’t have enough money left over to pay his other bills. This brings up another issue, the one he would raise if he had the opportunity to talk to the presidential candidates: Mr. S says he would implore the government to raise the minimum wage. Minimum wage in D.C. is $8.25/hour, but Mr. S says you just cannot live on a job that pays less than $10/hour. (Indeed, to afford the average rent in DC, studies show you’d actually need to make $28.96/hour.)  “My rent goes up by 5% every year, but my wages are stagnant.  How can I afford to pay my rent? I feel like I am moving backwards.”

It is safe to say at this late date that many of the issues articulated above won’t be a topic of conversation this election cycle.  Still, one can hope that the issues confronting those living in poverty will find their way into serious discussions after the close of election season.  Whatever your political stripe, we encourage you to have your voice heard tomorrow, and we hope that you will keep in mind the interests of the most vulnerable among us.

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