Why the Term "Poor People" Should Not Be Thought of as Political Dirty Words

You don’t need to be a political junkie or social worker to know that there has been a decades long war on the poor in America.

We understand that Republicans need to pander to their anti-government base when they propose to cut programs that benefit the poor, such as food stamps and housing assistance. This destruction of the social safety net and demonization of the poor allows them to deflect attention from the very real damage that their unnecessary tax cuts to the rich have done over the last fifteen years.

What is less understandable is why Democratswho should stand with the poorare afraid to even use the words poor people. They all talk about defending and expanding the middle class but you’ll find few politicians who will come out and say, I am running to protect and defend poor people, their families, and social welfare programs.

Occasionally they will refer to the 45 million Americans who live in poverty as low income or disadvantaged, but few will use the words “poor people.”

It wasn’t always like this. Remember the Poor People’s Campaign?

Image of Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign in 1968
Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign in 1968

Remember the “War on Poverty?

Image of President Lyndon Johnson enacting the
President Lyndon Johnson enacting the “War on Poverty” in 1964

No more. Few politicians even use the words the poor today.

This definitely wasn’t what our ancient Greek forefathers intended when they created the root democracy.” They specifically engineered it to protect poor people.

Back then the meaning of the words the demos meant the poor and the literal translation of the word democracy originally meant “the rule of the poor over the rich.”

Image of Cleisthenes, the father of Greek democracy
Cleisthenes, the father of Greek democracy (Attribution: http://www.ohiochannel.org/)

Strange as it may sound today, democracy was originally created to protect the poor from being exploited by the rich.

Those ancient creators of Western culture’s first democracy asked: What is the one thing poor people have in abundance?

The answer: their numbers.

And thus they created a system of governance which highlighted those numbers and the political principle that the majority rules. Not money or privilege, but, instead, the majority of the poor people who voted.

So what happened to give us today’s democracy, the one flooded with money and bent on benefiting the new oligarchs and their corporate sycophants who relentlessly push for “Socialism for the Rich”?

Blame the Athenians. They did the first spin-job of Western culture. After the first triumph of the poor, some slick-tongued ones came along and redefined the word demos” to mean the common people as opposed to the poor people.

As is true now, most common people were, in fact, poor people, but soon ancient democracy was “qualified” and that meant that the only people qualified to vote owned property.

American democracy has at times qualified the right to vote with poll and literacy taxes in the past.

Today, in most places you’re qualified to vote if you have simply registered — but increasingly people’s right to vote is challenged by Voter ID laws, and also in many cases people, especially poor people, just do not vote.

In light of the likely gains from getting out the vote, Democrats would be wise to start reminding America’s poor of the original intent of democracy and they should fight to expand the programs that protect all people and alleviate poverty.

In the process of explaining the why of democracy, candidates would give poor people a reason to vote for them, and this would help restore Western democracy to its original intent — to protect the poor from being exploited by the rich.

– Shawn

Shawn Casey O’Brien is the author of For The Love Of Long Shots…A Memoir on Democracy, available online at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, & IndieBound.