Sanberg Eyes Poverty-Focused Presidential Run
Joe Sanberg played a lead role in the creation of California’s first state Earned Income Tax Credit in 2015 and founded CalEITC4ME to help low-income families claim both the state and federal credits. But the entrepreneur, who cofounded online financial services company Aspiration.com, envisions a much broader restructuring of the economy and society along egalitarian lines. As such, he is considering running for president with eradicating poverty at the center of his platform. Spotlight recently spoke with Sanberg about his potential campaign. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Spotlight is tracking the priorities and policy positions of all candidates in the 2020 presidential race and does not support or endorse any particular candidate.
What made you consider running for president?
We need an agenda that starts with understanding the real nature of poverty. Traveling around the country the last couple of years, I’ve seen things that echo my own experience growing up. A lot of people who are living but not getting by. The nature of poverty has changed, so $50,000 of income doesn’t meant the same thing as it did fifty years ago since it comes from volatile sources. Income is increasingly unpredictable. And this means healthcare, tied to employment, is unpredictable as well.
We have a crisis not just of deep poverty but in the fact that people are miserable. It’s not the 99 percent versus the one percent, it’s about the 8 out of 10 Americans who live paycheck-to-paycheck.
The candidates who talk about returning civility to D.C., that resonates with those two out of ten. But for everyone else, you aren’t focused on these things because you are worried about things like will your kids have access to healthcare.
So, we need to change our understanding of poverty to encompass what these eighty percent of Americans are experiencing, then make addressing poverty the governing agenda of our country. I’m seriously considering running for president because we need to talk about these things if we’re going to fix it.
If I ran it won’t be about raising my brand, it will be about winning. And I think I bring credentials that help build a broader coalition. As a progressive entrepreneur, I can get people to work together.
I’m as progressive as they come and I believe in single-payer insurance and believe in the Green New Deal, but I also have the ability as an entrepreneur to explain why Medicare and the Green New Deal would be rocket fuel for the economy. Whether I run or I use my voice as an advocate, we need to make the case as to why these polices will help people and are great for the economy.
People are rightly skeptical of a businessman running for president. But for me, the difference is using my experience not just to support the status quo but to challenge it.
What’s the timeline for your decision and what will be the key factors you base it on?
I could decide as early as this weekend or by July 12 when I turn 40. I’m trying to think how I can make the biggest impact. I’m not committed to running for office now or ever. Whether I run or not will come down to whether I think this is how I can do the most good.
What do you see as your platform beyond some of the issues you just laid out?
The thread that connects all of that will be helping communities that have been marginalized and left behind by our economic system. We need to reset the economic structures that have been infused with misogyny and racism. This is our opportunity to reset, make our systems effective for everyone, and rebuild them without misogyny and racism.
I’m really proud of our EITC work and organizing. But we can’t solve these problems through the EITC alone and just deal with the wound after it’s been created. We need to ask why our economy is creating so many low-wage jobs.
It goes back to rules of the road. We have a monopoly economy that flows from a monopoly culture. Everywhere you look you see examples of powerful people playing by different sets of rules from the rest of us. It’s a breakdown in culture where the same rules don’t apply to everyone. We need to return to a country where everyone plays by the rules.
Ironically, conservatives are the ones that talk about entitlement and socialism, but what we really have is socialism for the powerful and big business and capitalism for the rest – strict enforcement of the rules for the poor and people of color while the powerful make their own rules.
How would you put this concept into practice?
Foremost, it would be by making sure there were consequences for bad behavior. To take an example, we continue to see examples of people calling authorities based on racist motives or police officers mistreating people of color. It isn’t getting better because there are no consequences. We take no action to change the law. We should update hate crime legislation so if you call the authorities on someone just because they are a person of color or pull someone over just because they are a person of color that’s a hate crime.
We also need to rethink immigration policy. There should be a dual mandate of enforcing immigration law and securing the border while also upholding and protecting civil rights. With ICE, we’ve been running immigration policy out of the Department of Homeland Security. You’re not going to have a focus on justice with that type of system. We should abolish ICE, which doesn’t mean no immigration enforcement but rather putting enforcement within the Department of Justice where you can have a true dual mandate.
There’s a record number of candidates already in the race. What would set you apart from those already running?
There are two major things. One is my campaign would be all about poverty. And poverty, understood as I defined it earlier where we have eight of ten Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck. And you would hear the “p word” over and over again. Consultants say if you tell people they are poor it’s insulting to them. My experience has been the opposite. People don’t feel insulted; they feel seen. What’s insulting is saying you are middle class. Almost no Americans really feel that. But our politicians and media tell everyone they are middle class even when they are struggling to get by, and we wonder why people feel disconnected.
I also have the recent experience of growing up poor. I am 39 and have very fresh memories of my mom trying to take care of us on limited resources and then losing our home to foreclosure and having to move back with her mom who was dying. Having these fresh memories, and also having friends who are dealing with the challenges of the current generation, like the burden of student debt, provides a different perspective.
How would you work to engage the broader public, especially those not active in politics and with lived poverty experience, in your campaign?
If I run, I will apply the same approach as we have with our antipoverty work, which starts with direct service. We got a lot of attention for helping to get the EITC implemented and then expanded in California. But the real key to success was providing free tax prep support and then inviting these people to help lobby for policy change. Our model is direct service and then building relationships and giving people organizing power.
We are almost never there for low-income people when they need us, and then wonder why they don’t show up at the ballot box. I would want a campaign with a heavy social service component that begins with helping people first.
Joe Sanberg is co-founder of Aspiration.com and founder of the Working Hero PAC.