Missing from the race in Georgia: the poor and working class
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For all the endless progressive post-mortems over the mega-expensive special election in the 6th Congressional District of Georgia, few have noted that one key reason for Jon Ossoff’s loss was his failure to address the specific needs of the massive number of people in that district living in and near the poverty line.

Media coverage of the race generally called the district “affluent” or “wealthy,” but that was a vast oversimplification.

It is true that the median family income in the district in 2015 was $83,844, which was 49 percent higher than the national level of $56,516. But it’s also true that 30 percent of the district’s households had incomes below $50k annually, and 18 percent were below $35K.

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Most American elites are still stuck on the outdated notion that America’s suburbs are bastions of success and privilege, yet the sharpest hikes in poverty over the last decade have occurred in suburbs and, in the Georgia 6th, the number of people in poverty increased by 101 percent from 2000 to 2014.

 

More Americans who suffer from poverty and hunger now live in suburbs than in central cities.

The main reasons for both soaring poverty and a struggling middle class in our suburbs are the same: too few jobs and stagnant wages combined with skyrocketing costs for housing, healthcare, food, and child care.

As of 2015, the official unemployment rate, which only includes people actively looking for work, in the Georgia 6th was 5.1 percent, meaning one out of 20 adults seeking employment were unable to find it.

However, out of the 559,887 people above the age of 16 in the district, 158,222 (28 percent) were outside of the paid labor force.

Even accounting for people with disabilities that prevent them from working, parents who purposely choose to work full-time raising their children, and retired people, it’s clear that large numbers of able-bodied people in the district are not working.

It’s no shock, perhaps, that the Republican candidate, Karen Handel, didn’t substantively address the concerns of impoverished and working class families. After all, her victory proved that she didn’t need to in order to win.

Since affluent people usually have far higher voter turnout rates than lower income citizens, Republicans can often win simply by playing to their upper middle class and wealthy base.

You’d think, though, that the Democratic candidate — desperately needing votes from struggling families — would directly pledge to aid them economically.

Think again.

Ossoff’s campaign website listed 13 issue areas as “priorities,” and not one of them seriously focused on the needs of the non-affluent. Under “our economy,” the web site said: “Jon will stand up in Congress for a dynamic, forward-looking, fiscally responsible economic policy that maximizes opportunity for entrepreneurs, workers, and investors. Jon will work to level the playing field for small businesses so they can grow and create jobs that will empower Georgians to strive, save, send our kids to college affordably, and retire comfortably.”

It unlikely that this Republican-like language convinced many unemployed people that they would eventually get jobs created by entrepreneurs. Ossoff’s one web reference to making the minimum wage a living wage states that higher wages should be “implemented at a pace that allows employers to adapt their business plans.”

Besides, merely offering raises to people already with jobs does nothing to help people who are unemployed.

Ossoff’s skewed message was likely influenced by his desire to please the donor class, which, even for Democratic candidates, is usually more moved by cultural issues or foreign policy than by messages about inequality or economic opportunity. Ossoff was also trying to pick up some affluent Republicans voters, but that long-shot gamble clearly failed.

In the end, despite the biggest spending ever in a House race (more than $50 million, which could have paid for 29 million school breakfasts) only 57 percent of registered voters, and a far smaller percentage of eligible voters, participated.

Ossoff lost by less than 10,000 votes. Had he offered real solution to the real problems faced by more families in his district, he could have surely motivated more of them to vote, and he’d be a congressman today.

Does this mean that Ossoff should have moved — and other Democrats in the future should move — further to the left in order to win?

Not necessarily.

This isn’t about ideology so much as it is proving to voters that you understand their struggles and that you have concrete plans to help them. Besides, even low-income families often prefer centrist policy approaches.

Mainstream ideas such as dramatically expanding AmeriCorps to combine job creation with making college education more affordable would surely be popular with this population.

Likewise for plans that use modern technologies to slash government bureaucracies along with aid that boosts upward mobility to families more quickly and easily, as I’ve previously proposed.

There are myriads of plans and proposals to aid people in and near poverty that would be both good policy and good politics.

The only sure way to lose is to continue to ignore the Americans with the greatest needs.

Joel Berg is author of America, We Need to Talk: a Self-Help Book for the Nation and CEO of Hunger Free America, a national, non-partisan advocacy and direct service organization.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.