WASHINGTON — Bobby Fields isn’t the kind of person who normally gets to question presidential candidates.
Fields, 33, has worked as a McDonald’s cook for over 11 years, so when he had a chance to question one of the many Democrats running for president last week, he pressed the case for a $15 minimum wage — now.
“Folks like us, who work hard to make ends meet and contribute to their community, deserve to live with dignity,” said Fields, of Tampa, Fla.
He drew cheers from the audience at the Poor People’s Moral Action Congress here, a gathering inside a stuffy college gym last week meant to draw attention to issues affecting people in poverty, and which drew nine of the Democrats running for president.
The event, organized by religious leaders, gave people who are often overlooked an opportunity to press their cause to candidates and the media. Yet people in the audience frequently said they saw little hope in elections.
In a glimpse of how politics has left some disaffected and disconnected, many said politicians, even well-meaning ones, don’t really understand what it means to be poor, or have answers to help.
“I’m pretty skeptical of everyone who is speaking today,” said Jae Hubay, a massage therapist from Philadelphia. “It’s easy for them to say what they think we want to hear every two years or four years.”
Instead, Hubay said, it’s up to people to build their own movements.
“They just seem out of touch. Well meaning, but out of touch,” said Katrina Raser, a single mother from Harrisburg who said she earns $20,000 a year and described the stress of paying $50 so her daughter could go to a half-day of summer camp. “I don’t really think the electoral arena is where we solve the problems of poverty.”
Part of the goal of the event was to educate the politicians about what life is like on the economic edge, according to Larry Bresler, a social worker from Cleveland.
“Many of them do not understand the audience,” said Bresler, 70. “In some cases, they say the right thing because someone’s prompted them.... I don’t think most of them get it.”
The disillusionment was not universal, but its prevalence pointed to a disconnect among political leaders, even on the liberal side of American politics, and people in need. It also hinted at one reason, among many, that vast numbers of potential voters have effectively removed themselves from the political process.
Nearly 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s voting age population did not vote in the 2016 presidential race, according to the state Department of State. That means 3.9 million people sat out in a critical state where the outcome was decided by 44,000 votes. And that was in a year that saw an unusually high level of participation.
Even among the state’s registered voters, 2.6 million did not vote for president in 2016.
Organizers of the forum argued that as politicians obsess over the middle class, they neglect the poor.
“Over the last 50 years, the word poor has basically become a four-letter word, and the two responses by most of our politicians are either to pity or punish the poor, if the poor are talked about at all,” said the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.
The campaign and its supporters argued that more people are poor, or near poor, than is captured by typical measures.
Consider Karim Sariahmed. He just graduated from medical school and is about to begin a residency. But he now has hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. While many people might picture a homeless person as the image of poverty, he said he considers himself poor, too.
“I have more in common with a homeless person than the people who are supposedly representing us in government,” said Sariahmed, 27.
He was more engaged in the presidential race than some of the others at the event. He likes Elizabeth Warren for her detailed policies, but was leaning to Bernie Sanders because of his promises of sweeping change.