In the USA, poor people have relatively little power. While they can vote and create organisations to represent their interests, their power is severely limited by the fact that they are a relatively small minority within an enormously wealthy country.
In this most capitalist of nations, their status is further weakened because they are often seen as people who have “failed” to compete effectively in the economy and society. Furthermore, as most of America’s poor families are people of colour, they also are marginalised on racial grounds.
In addition, America’s low-income families suffer from where they are concentrated. The jurisdictions where they represent a majority of the voters: poor rural towns and counties, declining cities, are areas in which local taxes are insufficient to support good schools, good services and the job training and job creation which would open up new economic opportunities. It therefore is not enough for them to marshal sufficient power to influence local governments. They must also influence higher levels of government and major corporations, because only those institutions have the resources needed to improve poor communities and increase opportunities for low-income people. This presents a daunting challenge, as influencing those larger bodies requires organising on a state-wide and even a national basis, an extraordinary difficult feat for grassroots groups who are short of resources and often isolated from each other.
Poor people in the USA must therefore be highly organised and active to have any influence on the issues that matter most in their lives. They must build powerful mass-based organisations to represent their interests and become highly creative in developing sophisticated strategies to maximise their influence. They must take full advantage of the political space which is open to them (“their space”) and work to expand it and make decision making more transparent and more democratic. They must also create new space of their own (“our space” or “popular space”), where they can organise people and build organisations which increase their power, capacity, sophistication and influence. In this article, I look at the strategies that poor people and the organisations that represent them are using to expand their influence and strengthen democracy in the tough political context they face in the USA.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.2 (2004) Increasing Space and Influence through Community Organising and Citizen Monitoring: Experiences from the USA