A Brief History of Political Poverty Stunts - Voice of San Diego

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A Brief History of Political Poverty Stunts

Todd Gloria’s pledge to live on minimum wage for a week is part of a fine tradition of politicians roughing it to drum up buzz for their respective causes. Here’s a look at some local examples over the years.

It’s a dog-eared page in the politician playbook: Walk a mile in the downtrodden’s shoes, score big points for your latest policy endeavor.

City Council President Todd Gloria announced Wednesday he’ll spend a week on minimum wage, which Gloria figured to be about $51 a week after taxes and housing expenses. KUSI reported:

“My constituents know I’m a pretty frugal guy,” said Gloria.  “I live pretty simply, but I expect it to be pretty challenging.”

“As I look at how I’m going to go from now until next week on $51, I can tell you my consumption’s going to go down.”

Gloria says that $51 is going to have to cover food, transportation, medication and other “non-optional” items.

“I wouldn’t be surprised that by the end of this challenge I’ll have to resort to riding the bus and trolley, as many of our minimum wage workers do.”

That makes Gloria the latest in a line of local, state and national leaders roughing it short-term to drum up publicity and sympathy for their cause. The most recent example is GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari’s stint as a homeless and jobless Joe in Fresno.

Kashkari’s gimmick was intended to cast doubt on Gov. Jerry Brown’s claims that California’s economy was “back.” But it seemed to draw more ire than some similar exploits in the past. That could’ve been for any number of reasons: Kashkari’s party affiliation, his experience running the massive bank bailout known as TARP, his socioeconomic bracket or maybe his conflating of poverty with homelessness and/or joblessness.

Gloria has led the charge in the local effort to raise the minimum wage. The City Council overrode Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s veto of a minimum wage hike, but business groups are working to gather signatures to force the issue onto the ballot.

There’s some merit to endeavors like these. Politicians often manage to talk about policy issues without actually mentioning or understanding the lives of the very people affected by them. Efforts like Gloria’s and Kashkari’s at least put them in contact with constituents who live the problems they’re seeking to solve.

Let’s take a look back at some local examples of these stunts, and what came of them.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez

While she was secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez took part in the CalFresh Challenge. That’s where volunteers live on about $4.90 a day, or $34.31 a week, to mirror the plight of Californians receiving food stamps.

Gonzalez noted the time constraints of the budget put on full-time workers: “I had grand ideas of going to a farmers market and two or three different stores to capitalize on weekly specials,” she wrote in a Center for Policy Initiatives Blog. “In my first lesson of the working poor, I was reminded that the Saturday Farmers Market would be impossible to get to if I was scheduled to work, which I was.” She pointed out the unhealthy options in front of her, and by Day 2, she’d already concluded she “probably would do some pretty unethical things for a good meal.”

Since her September 2012 endeavor, Gonzalez has been among the louder voices pushing to raise San Diego’s minimum wage – and is still working to pass measures that assist low-income Californians in the Legislature.

Reps. Scott Peters and Susan Davis

During last fall’s government shutdown, Rep. Scott Peters announced he’d donate his paycheck to charities or groups in his district hurt by the closures.

“I do not believe that the leadership failure of the Republican majority can subject 800,000 workers to furloughs, and countless Americans to service delays and closures, while I collect a paycheck,” Peters said in a released statement, as reported by KPBS. KPCC has a breakdown of where exactly his donated pay went. Peters had pulled a similar move during the sequestration spending cuts that spring, donating 8 percent of his paycheck to the Senior Community Center of San Diego, and made No Budget, No Pay a thing. That’s turned into a sticking point with his rival Carl DeMaio, who’s running to oust Peters in the 52nd Congressional District.

Rep. Susan Davis also gave up her paycheck during last October’s shutdown, and Rep. Darrell Issa – Congress’ wealthiest lawmaker – revealed at the time he already gives his entire paycheck to charity.

Rep. Juan Vargas

Vargas took his stunt in a different direction. In December, he fasted for 24-hours, taking over for Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), to shine a light on families who would benefit from comprehensive immigration benefit. “In many faiths, fasting is a fundamental way of demonstrating commitment to one’s beliefs,” Vargas said. “Fasting reminds us that we must look past our personal needs in order to seek the greater good.  Here, the greater good is very clear, passing comprehensive immigration reform will bring hope to the millions of people who currently live in the shadows.”

Here’s how Clare Leschin-Hoar described the connection between Vargas’ advocacy for immigration reform and food insecurity:

It directly impacts farmers who are trying to source needed migrant laborers. For Midwestern farmers who grow commodity crops like corn and soybeans, the issue is less critical. For San Diego growers, whose fruits and vegetables require hand labor, immigration reform is salient.

And then there’s the critically important $955 billion Farm Bill renewal. Vargas sits right at the cross-hairs of that debate.

The last time the Farm Bill came up for a vote, Vargas voted against it. He said it came down to the proposed massive cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

“I could not get over the cuts to the poor. I couldn’t do it,” he told me in late May.

In the end, the final farm bill compromise cut about $8 billion from the program when it was signed into law earlier this year.

Ex-Mayor Maureen O’Connor

Former Mayor Maureen O’Connor was Kashkari-ing before it was cool. Back in 1988, the Democrat spent 48 hours on the streets – joined by two pairs of undercover reporters and police officers – as recapped in a San Diego Evening Tribune article headlined “Mayor samples lifestyle of the homeless”:

She wandered the streets till her feet blistered, was rousted from resting spots, slept a night in a seamy section of Balboa Park and sought help from a half-dozen agencies. She found unbridled drug dealing, male prostitution, the heartbreak of hopelessness.

She also found care, compassion and practical help from a non-judgmental network of workers and selfless volunteers dedicated to improving the lot of the homeless.

“It was a lifetime in 48 hours,” said O’Connor.  “No one could ever put in a memo what I have learned.”

O’Connor didn’t end up using what she learned during her experience to significantly help San Diego’s homeless population. In fact, she found herself in her own dire financial straits last year thanks to a gambling addiction and charges of money laundering.

Gwyneth Shoecraft contributed to this post.

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