Spotlight Exclusives

Voters Want Action on Poverty in 2008

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When they vote this November, Americans say they۪ll think about how candidates help those who “struggle to make ends meet”

Poverty is an issue that tends to get more attention during political campaigns and in the wake of natural disasters. That was certainly the case nearly three years ago, when hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit our Gulf Coast. When the media turned its cameras on the terrible destruction, the bright lights revealed lots more than the hurt and need that comes in the wake of flood and howling wind. The media discovered neglect and persistent poverty, as well as political perspectives and social systems that served to perpetuate deep want and lack of opportunity in poor communities across the South.

The news stories were no surprise to anyone who works to reduce poverty. Yet, we at the Northwest Area Foundation felt the coverage missed two important elements: that the struggle to make ends meet can affect how people vote; and, that scores of communities are confronting poverty head-on and making real progress.

Over the years, the Northwest Area Foundation has worked with rural, urban, American Indian reservation, and rural Latino communities some with populations under 200 and others that span multiple counties supporting their efforts to build skills and set plans to reclaim their destinies. Tens of thousands of men, women and youth have participated in efforts to understand the poverty within their communities, create better visions for tomorrow, and take action to get there.

This experience prompted us to commission a survey to learn whether the high level of self-determination and accountability we saw among our grantees was alive in other communities across the country.

After three years of conducting the telephone survey, we can confidently answer “yes.”

In 2008, respondents from all across the country 4,000 in all painted a strong picture of realism, expectation and hope.

More than half of the respondents said their local economies are “only fair” at best. More than one-third worry all or most of the time that their incomes won۪t pay the bills this year, and seven out of ten said it takes at least $40,000 a year to support a family of four; that۪s nearly twice the Federal poverty threshold ($21,027).

Political leaders, especially those campaigning in 2008, may also be interested to know that:

  • 90% say it is “very or somewhat important” for local elected officials to help people struggling to make ends meet
  • 80% say they are almost certain to vote this November
  • 80% they will think about how candidates address this struggle when they go to the polls

At the same time, over 8-out-of-10 said they feel the number of people struggling to make ends meet could be reduced in their communities. Even more, 9-out-of-10 said they would personally like to do more to help people struggling within their communities.

This is a silver lining elected officials and other policymakers need to act on. These responses point to an electorate looking for improvement and leadership, and willing to help.

Gary Cunningham is vice president of programs and Chief Program Officer of the Northwest Area Foundation. Its mission is to help its eight-state region reduce poverty long term. For more information about the 2008 national poll and the foundation, visit

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