Are you worth less than a million dollars? If so, running for office will come with its share of hardships.

Just a few months after announcing my candidacy for Queens District Attorney, I sat on stage for a televised live debate on NY1, a New York City news station that reaches over two million viewers, as a first time political candidate. I had just fired back at another candidate who questioned my competence. Each criticism he threw at me, I responded, wasn’t a reason why I shouldn’t run, his criticisms were actually reasons why women like me had very little access to political empowerment.

His “criticisms” of me were actually descriptions of institutional obstacles to entry into public service.

I continued on, explaining  that as a queer Latina from a working class family, whose parents grew up in public housing projects, and whose grandparents grew up dirt poor in Puerto Rico – I, and women like me, rarely made it onto stages like that one. I then rattled off all the reasons why I was the most qualified candidate in the race.

In so many ways this was the embodiment of the nexus between lack of generational wealth and barriers to political power. My presence on that stage wasn’t typical; it was against all odds. Odds that are stacked against millions of people who aren’t lucky enough to be born into wealth.

Historically there has been a clear correlation between access to wealth and the ability to truly participate in political processes, whether as a candidate or as a community member trying to build political power.

It isn’t a coincidence that the median net worth of a Member of Congress is around $1.1 million, which is a conservative estimate. State legislators – the people who make the most laws that govern our everyday lives – make anywhere from  $0 per year to $83k per year, with half making somewhere between $17k and $56k per year. 

This isn’t rocket science. With wages like this it’s clear that only a few people have the ability to run and then actually serve. People with access to an economic support system have more expendable time, the ability to self-care more freely to recover from emotional stress, and access to other wealthy, well connected people. This created a recipe for overwhelmingly enabling affluent folks to more fully participate in our democratic processes than working people or the working poor. 

In contrast, poor and working class people have a tougher time taking off of work, are more likely to have to bare the brunt of caregiving responsibilities, and less likely to have a wealthy social network.

When I mentioned my parents on that debate stage, I knew my mother was proudly watching the debate on television after a long day of canvassing and door knocking with other campaign volunteers. This was the first time in her life that she was politically engaged. Now retired and having managed to move up the social and economic ladder in her lifetime, she enjoyed access to political empowerment that her grandparents, parents and younger self did not. 

My mother grew up in a violent home in public housing and when my grandmother finally left my grandfather, a Korean war vet who suffered from PTSD and self medicated with alcohol, my mother dropped out of high school. She took on the responsibility of helping support her three siblings. Years later, my grandfather’s health declined, exacerbated by his alcoholism, and she became a caregiver to him. 

Throughout the years, learning about and campaigning for down ballot candidates in Democratic primaries wasn’t even a thought. My mother’s story is not unique. With survival on the mind and a complete absence of systems in place to make civic engagement and political empowerment more accessible, so many are shut out of our democratic processes. 

Wealth creates networks and social capital and access to political spaces, including internships, clubs, and education, so that it is doubly difficult for working class, working poor, and poor folks to run for office and win. Yet unpaid internships that give access to opportunities and experience are still the norm despite a growing movement to reduce the use of unpaid labor. 

As Americans, we are taught early on to believe in the “American Dream.” Opportunity and economic upward mobility is ours for the taking so long as we work hard enough.

Turns out this is one of the biggest lies that working people were made to believe to shift blame to individuals and away from systemic barriers that keep poor people out of power. A common saying that is rooted in truth is “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”  

My story is not that I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, worked harder than most of my peers, went on to become a lawyer, and managed to build a platform to advocate from. My story is that in so many ways I got lucky.

I was lucky my father obtained a union job and with it, a number of stabilizing factors that countered so many destabilizing ones. I obtained a level of privilege that helped inoculate me from a myriad of factors that contribute to a lack of generational wealth.

Despite my exposure to violence, substance use disorder and economic insecurity, I didn’t get repeatedly suspended from school, or arrested, or struggle with substance use myself. All things that so many of my classmates, neighbors, and clients experienced because of living in communities that were over policed, and resource starved.

Just as wealth and privilege is inherited, so is a lack of it. 

Escaping the vicious cycle of poverty and all the challenges that come with it shouldn’t be based on luck and an extraordinary will to escape and survive, and yet this is exactly what’s required. The generational wealth gap will take decades to fix, therefore the only solution to diversifying the voices that serve in our government is to create new pathways. 

The path to political empowerment for those experiencing poverty or lacking generational wealth necessitates policy responses that create more opportunities for social and economic mobility.

Policies like universal healthcare and childcare, affordable housing, and changes to our campaign finance system would collectively alleviate system inequities that create barriers to generational economic mobility and, in turn, increase opportunities for political empowerment. 

Paying a living wage to all elected officials isn’t about “bloating” our government, as conservatives allege, it’s about increasing access to people who can’t afford to serve otherwise. Ensuring access to all who want to sacrifice their time and energy in order to work for positive change in our communities makes for a better system for all.

And ultimately, isn’t the “for all” conclusion in our Pledge of Allegiance an ideal worth fighting for?  

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