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In Florida and beyond, long-term poverty is forgotten issue in 2020 election

Candidates promise help for those affected by the pandemic, but there is little discussion about how to help the nation’s poorest citizens.
Robles Park resident Edwin Rosa, pictured with his Chihuahua Tiny, said he has no plans to vote this year. He said politicians do nothing for the people in his neighborhood.
Robles Park resident Edwin Rosa, pictured with his Chihuahua Tiny, said he has no plans to vote this year. He said politicians do nothing for the people in his neighborhood. [ CHRISTOPHER O'DONNELL | Times ]
Published Oct. 30, 2020

TAMPA — A convicted felon since his teenage years, Edwin Rosa has never voted.

Even after Florida amended its constitution in 2018 to allow some ex-felons to vote, Rosa, 42, didn’t see any point in registering.

He and his family live in Robles Park, one of Tampa’s oldest, poorest and most rundown public housing complexes. There’s no air-conditioning, so he runs four window units, leaving him with steep utility bills he struggles to pay.

Unemployed for seven months because of the pandemic, he is waiting to start a new job as a cook. Nothing he’s heard in the 2020 campaign gives Rosa hope that the election will change anything.

“They don’t do anything for us here,” he said.

About 38 million Americans live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census, including about 1.5 million in Florida. But their plight has garnered little more than a passing mention in this year’s presidential campaign, which has been dominated by healthcare, the economy and the coronavirus.

Neither presidential candidate’s platform makes tackling long-term poverty a specific goal. Democratic nominee Joe Biden pledges to triple funding for schools in poor neighborhoods and to reform opportunity zones, a designation created by President Donald Trump’s administration intended to spur economic investment. Trump’s campaign website does not list priorities for a second term, but touts his record of job creation and higher wages for Americans.

Addressing poverty doesn’t appear as a high priority for most of Florida’s congressional candidates, either. If elected, they would be responsible for the fate of the nation’s safety net programs.

A Tampa Bay Times review of the campaign websites of the 52 Republican and Democratic candidates vying for U.S. House seats in the Sunshine State found that only a handful mention poverty as a priority.

Poverty’s fall from the nation’s priorities may reflect a perception that those in poverty are to blame for their own plight, said Jeremy Everett, founder and executive director of the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, a research and innovation institute at Baylor University that explores solutions to hunger and poverty.

“You would like our politicians to be more in touch with the realities of tens of millions of Americans and what they’re facing on an annual basis,” Everett said. “If we can make poverty to be the fault of the person who is poor, we don’t have to do anything about it. It resolves our collective guilt.”

The visibility of low-income families to politicians is not helped by their poor rate of participating in elections.

A study by the Poor People’s Campaign, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, found that voter participation among the nation’s poor runs about 20 percent below that of their more affluent peers. The group campaigned to register more low-income voters for this election.

Poverty is typically seen as an issue that Democrats are more likely to prioritize, said J. Edwin Benton, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida. Programs such as Medicare and Social Security were created under Democratic presidents.

But in 2020, the only poor people who appear to matter are those affected by the pandemic, an issue that has swept most others to the margins.

"The pandemic is overshadowing everything,” Benton said.

Political consultant Bryan Farris, the campaign manager for Hillsborough Circuit Judge candidate Bill Yanger, said this year’s candidates are more willing to talk about issues that help low-income families, such as transportation and affordable housing, rather than focusing on poverty specifically.

But he sees a problem with how many politicians have made a distinction between those struggling because of the pandemic and those who were poor beforehand, particularly with calls for another stimulus package to help people out of work “through no fault of their own.”

“To use the phrase 'no fault of their own’ is kind of a dog whistle to lead people to think those who lost their jobs prior to the pandemic are to blame for their situation,” Farris said.

Alan Cohn, the Democratic candidate for Florida’s 15th Congressional District, is one of the few candidates whose platform lists policies including raising the minimum wage to address “generational poverty.” He also would like to increase Social Security payments to raise seniors out of poverty.

A former television news reporter, he said he often reported from poor communities, a perspective that other politicians of all stripes often do not have.

“Unless you see it with your own eyes and are in these communities, you’re totally unaware,” he said.

Several Republican candidates pledged to vote against cuts to Social Security and Medicaid.

It’s been hard for Eduardo Feliz to relate this year’s election rhetoric about the stock market with the people he sees every day at the Sulphur Springs Resource Center, a program run by United Way Suncoast, where he serves as senior manager. The center helps people find jobs and access to social services.

The pandemic has only increased the level of poverty in the neighborhood, Feliz said. At a recent food bank event, supplies ran out in 45 minutes, twice as quickly as usual. More people are coming in asking for help paying rent and finding housing.

“I do feel like it’s an extremely forgotten population as it relates to their needs and wants,” Feliz said. “These are people who don’t have opportunities or adequate supports in place to be able to flourish, given the hands they’ve been dealt in their lives.”

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WHY A FLORIDA CITY’S BLACK VOTERS BEAT NATIONAL AVERAGES: Turnout is 10 percent over the national average. That’s been true for generations. The story of Chester James Sr. helps explain why.

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