Lessons from a Candidate Who Sought to End Poverty (Part I)


By Michael Stoops

Over forty years ago, in 1968 this country lost a great American, Upton Sinclair, who had a profound impact forwarding social justice in the United States. He first came to national attention with the book, The Jungle, published in 1906 which exposed unsafe practices of the meatpacking industry in Chicago. Not as well known was Upton Sinclair’s effort to be elected as a U.S. Senator and Governor of California. 

As a socialist, he ran for a U.S. Senate seat in California in 1922 and got 50,323 votes.  He ran for Governor in 1930 and got 50,480.  He described that as progress.

In 1934, he switched parties and became a Democrat.  He carried the Democratic primary with 436,000 votes, and winning by a margin of some 25,000 votes.

In the general election, Sinclair received twice the number of votes of any previous Democratic candidate for governor of California up to that point. Final vote:  Frank Merriam—1,138,620 Sinclair—879,537.  

He died in 1968.

Unlike most modern day candidates, he ran on a platform of ending poverty in California.

Similar to today’s visible homelessness, poverty and unemployment were at their peak during the early years of the Great Depression. Sinclair sought political office to stop the growth of poverty in one of the most difficult times in American history.

In his own words, Sinclair said,

“But I cannot enjoy the comforts of home, and the freedom of work and recreation which I have earned, while I know there are millions of others around me suffering for lack of common necessities.

Here are thousands of people wandering homeless, and thousands of homes which no one is allowed to occupy.  Here are a million people who want to work and are not allowed to work.
I say, positively and without qualification, we can end poverty in California.  I know exactly how to do it, and if you elect me Governor, with a Legislature to support me, I will put the job through—and I won’t take more than one or two or four years.

I say that there is no excuse for poverty in a civilized and wealthy State like ours.  I say that we can and should see to it that all men and women of our State who are willing to work should have work suited to their capacities, and should be paid a wage that will enable them to maintain a decent home and an American standard of living.

I say that every old person should be provided for in comfort, and likewise every orphaned child and every person who is sick or incapacitated.  I repeat that this can be done, and that I know how to do it.  If I take up the job, I will stick until it is finished, and there will be no delay and no shilly-shallying.  There will be action, and continuous action, until the last man, woman, and child has these fundamental economic rights.  Again, I say:  End Poverty in California.”

Later on Sinclair said that the slogan, “End Poverty in California”, really meant to him, “End Poverty in Civilization.”

His “End Poverty in California” (EPIC) had twelve basic principles.  Some of the more interesting/unique/prophetic ones included:

  • God created the natural wealth of the earth for the use of all men, not a few.
  • When some men live without working, other men are working without living.
  • The existence of luxury in the presence of poverty and destitution is contrary to good morals and sound public policy.
  • The cause of the trouble is that a small class has the wealth, while the rest have debts.

The first plank of his political platform was to give the unemployed productive work and make them self-supporting.

He also proposed exempting the poor from having to pay taxes.

“I proposed that all homes assessed at less than $3000 shall be exempt from taxation.  Anybody who lives in that poor a home in these times needs help and not taxing.  Homes from $3000 to $5000 pay a normal rate, and for each additional $5000 we add one-half of one per cent.  That means that if you live in a $100,000 home you will pay a tax of about 11%, and if you don’t care to pay that, the State will take over your mansion and turn it into a public institution for orphaned children, or for the aged, or for those who have acquired tuberculosis by slaving twelve hours a day in a department store or a restaurant kitchen,” said the candidate.

The Nexus of the Campaign

Sinclair offered a real choice to Californians.  He said, “In California of 1934 there could only be two parties, those who wished to abolish poverty, and those who wished to maintain it.”

“We say to the voters.  There are half a million persons in our state out of work.  They cannot be permitted to starve.  These persons can never again find work while the present system endures…..  There is no solution to this problem except to put these unemployed at productive labor….

Our opponents have told you that we cannot put this plan through.  Let me answer just this:  If you should give me a chance to end poverty in California, and I should fail to do it, life would mean nothing to me thereafter.

I say ‘abolish poverty.’ This is plain language that everybody can stand.”

A special effort was made to reach the churches.  Sinclair said:  “It is impossible for me to understand how any group of people organized in the name of Jesus can support the continuation of poverty, with all the degradation and misery it causes to the human race.”

Dirty Campaign Attacks on Sinclair

While his campaign resonated with poor Californians, he was opposed by influential enemies from major newspaper publishers to Hollywood studio owners.

Some of this was Sinclair’s own doing.

Recounting a visit to Washington, DC, Sinclair said, “I told Harry Hopkins in Washington that if I am elected half the unemployed of the United States will come to California, and he will have to make plans to take care of them.”

On another occasion he said, “If I am elected Governor, I expect one-half the unemployed in the United States will hop aboard the first freights to California”

This turned out to be the worst gaffe of his campaign.

His enemies did a “Bums Rush” news reel video showing hordes of transients jumping off freight trains in California.   This footage ran in movie theaters statewide.

Other billboards pictured an army of transients marching, marching, marching beneath the quote “I expect half the unemployed in the U.S. to flock to California if I am elected.”  DO YOU WANT THIS TO HAPPEN?

The Los Angeles Times ran editorials against Sinclair with headlines like, “Hordes of Jobless Swooping on State.”  The editorial calculated that ten million Americans were out of work, meaning that five million indigents would swamp the state once Sinclair took office.

“In other words,” the editorial observed, “Sinclair expects to end poverty in California by bringing in fifteen times as many poverty-stricken, jobless indigents as we already have!”

The former national Commander of the American Legion branded Sinclair’s plan a “grotesque fantasy.”

In a pre-election  satirical opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, a writer using a pseudonym wrote that Sinclair had won and spelled out the consequences of his winning.

He wrote of how all the “paupers and ne’er-do-wells” in  Florida were informed that Mr. Sinclair would keep his promises—work for all who wished to work—incomes for those who didn’t..” 

Post-election there was a “great Florida-to-California migration of dead-brokes and dead-beats.”

Florida then emptied its prisons and asylums.

Other governors joined in.  Forty-six other states copied the Florida measure, and in a short-time all the 12,000,000 unemployed and their families, together with all the convicts and all the insane of forty-seven states, had been hustled over the border into California.

These states then amended the Constitution making it illegal for poor people to travel from state to state therefore keeping all the poor contained inside of California.

Others poked fun at Sinclair by referring to EPIC as:  “Every Pauper Is Coming,”  “Easy Pickings in California,” “Everybody’s Poorhouse, Including Californians,” and “California, Here I Bum.”

One editorial cartoon showed two tramps reading about EPIC in an eastern newspaper and deciding to winter in California instead of Florida this year.

Even a song parody was written.

California, here we come!  Every beggar, every bum
From New York—and Jersey—down to Purdue—
By millions—we’re coming—so that we can live on you.
We hear that Sinclair’s got your State
That’s why we can hardly wait
Open up your Golden Gate
California, here we come!

Sinclair’s Legacy for the Upcoming 2008 Presidential Campaign

The campaign practices and public policy of Upton Sinclair should be inspirational to today’s candidates and lawmakers. Poverty in the US has reached devastatingly high levels and without decisive action from public officials, will continue with catastrophic results. Hopefully, the ideas and dreams of Mr. Sinclair can educate our politicians and allow them to use his own campaign to end poverty as a model in the ’08 presidential election.

*Read Part 2 of the article*


Sinclair, Upton.I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty. A True Story of the Future. Los Angeles. Upton Sinclair 1934
Sinclair, Upton. I, Candidate for Governor:  And How I Got Licked.Upton Sinclair. 1934
Mitchell, Greg.The Campaign of the Century:  Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics. New York.     Random House, 1992 
Mattson, Kevin. Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century. Hoboken, New Jersey. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2006

Michael Stoops is the Acting Executive Director of the Washington, DC-based National Coalition for the Homeless.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments