Democratic Presidential Candidates Vie For A Chance To Tackle Poverty In Arkansas

Feb 29, 2016


Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at a debate in January.
Credit Mic Smith/AP/

Pragmatism and principle, defining progressivism, and what it would take to regulate Wall Street, those are concerns that have impassioned Democrats this primary.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is campaigning to tackle wealth inequality levels he says haven’t existed since the 1920’s. According to the campaign’s Arkansas Director Sarah Scanlon, Sanders would increase taxes on companies like Arkansas-based Walmart and Tyson Foods to pay for new social programs.

“We have three of the largest employers in this country are located in this state. And those employers at the top level are making a lot of money,” she said.“The employees that get up in the morning, get up late at night, work all night, work all day are not seeing their income grow.” 

Former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton  focused her career on children, women, and families. Senior Policy Advisor Ann O’Leary said Clinton believes fixing poverty is about more than just wages and taxes.

“Of course we need to tax the wealthy, of course we need to be much more aggressive, and she has very specific plans about how she’s going to do that,” said O’Leary. “She makes very clear that can’t be the only answer. We also need to have economic development for distressed communities. We need to have opportunities for education.” 

According to economics professor Sarah Quintanar of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the two have similar plans to fund education and regulate Wall Street, but Clinton embraces a more incremental pace. Quintanar said data shows Sanders’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, compared to Clinton’s $12 federal goal, would make a big difference in Arkansas, if it happened.

“Looking at raising it up to $15 impacts almost half a million more people,” she said. “I think that has a much bigger impact on Arkansas specifically because we have so many people that fall within, you know they’re making more than $12 but less than $15.”

But O’Leary says there’s a reason for incremental change in states like Arkansas, which recently increased its minimum wage to $8.50.

“Going from 8.50 to $15 in some communities would mean the loss of some jobs. So she wants to make sure we have a very sensible approach to increasing in the federal wage, and then we allow communities to go further, and I think that’s a really critical difference,” she said.

Sanders’s campaign said his plans are achievable because he is creating a new political landscape, bringing out new Arkansas voters, particularly young ones.

“Senator Sanders’s core message is it’s not about ‘me,’ it’s about ‘we.’ So engaging the grassroots and working with the grassroots is going to be instrumental in how he actually implements any policies,” she said.

O’Leary said she believes Clinton has greater leadership skills, in part because she knows how to get things done in Washington, D.C.

“She has not only the most qualified resume of anybody who is running for president, but she also has the commitment to really thinking about how do we address the systemic problems in our country?" 

According to Political Scientist Andrew Dowdle at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville the candidates’ differences mirror a split that emerged on the left in the 1960’s, between a traditional New Deal coalition, which Sanders represents, focused on class struggle, and the rise of feminism and other strands of progressivism that influenced Clinton. 

“The assumption is that if the material inequalities are dealt with, differences in terms of pay for women, African Americans, will end up going away,” said Dowdle.

“The Clinton Campaign really does believe that there are structural issues that go beyond socioeconomic concerns. If you look at the unequal treatment of women, the unequal treatment of ethnic or racial minorities, these aren’t things that are simply going to go away because you raise the minimum wage.”

57 percent of likely Arkansas voters support Clinton in a recent Talk Business and Politics and Hendrix College poll. Sanders had 25 percent, and 18 percent were undecided as of February 7. Dowdle said that’s in part because Arkansans tend to vote for candidates with regional ties, and Clinton’s remain strong.