About four months ago, I canceled my health care plan. A couple of months before that, I put my student loans — of which I still owe $30,000 — into forbearance. My story isn’t unique among working-class millennials in the country. But what sets me apart is that I had to do all of this because I decided to run for Congress.
Last February, I took a leap of faith and entered the congressional race for my home district, Georgia’s Seventh. Running for office comes with plenty of advice from well-meaning friends and colleagues about the long hours, the time spent making phone calls and shaking hands, the scrutiny into your personal life. But few warned me about money.
So I’m here to tell you what I’ve learned: Political campaigns are often a pastime for the wealthy, meaning they’re off-limits for working-class people with backgrounds like mine. Let’s start with the fact that it’s nearly impossible to run for Congress while holding down a job. Campaigning is a full-time endeavor that requires having enough money to live without a salary for months on end. It also usually means paying out of pocket for health insurance, forgoing money that could have been put toward a retirement account, buying a house, or caring for loved ones.
All of this might be fine if you’re independently wealthy, but that’s not me. I grew up in Gwinnett County as the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, attending Gwinnett public schools. My father was a file clerk with the IRS for nearly 30 years, and my mother has worked multiple low-wage jobs all my life. I worked odd jobs as a teenager and in college, putting myself through school and helping my family make ends meet.
I never thought I was electable. But 2018, the year we elected the most diverse Congress in history, showed me that “electability” is a myth. So I came back home and worked really hard to put together a grassroots campaign.
And yet, hard work isn’t enough. People like me can do everything in their power to cut costs and climb the ladder, and still find themselves at the bottom financially.
I thought I would be able to hold down a part-time job waitressing or driving for Uber while campaigning, but the demands — calling and meeting with voters, attending events across my community, pursuing endorsements — became too high. For a while, I was paying out of pocket for a junk health care plan. It was unfortunately the only plan I could afford, especially since Georgia has refused to expand Medicaid. I knew the plan wouldn’t do much for me if I got sick or got hurt on the trail, so eventually, I canceled it. Having no income also means I’ve eaten enough packets of dollar ramen to last a lifetime.
My situation is difficult, but it’s not unique. Working-class people don’t usually run for Congress, and when they do, they often find themselves struggling like I am. It’s hard to build up independent wealth if you aren’t paid fairly, and women and people of color are disproportionately impacted by the wage gap. I’m struggling to support just myself, and I know it would be nearly impossible for me to continue my bid for Congress if I had a family to care for too. It’s no wonder nearly 40 percent of Congress members are millionaires. Three of my competitors in this race have spent more than $250,000 to self-fund their campaigns.
If we don’t eliminate barriers that prevent candidates from supporting themselves while running for federal office, we’ll continue to see a Congress that’s largely composed of wealthy, older white men. Americans will be deprived of representation by people who understand their lived experiences, and will continue to struggle under mounting student and medical debt.
The Federal Election Commission currently doesn’t allow candidates to use campaign funds for health care. I’m challenging the FEC to change its rules and to explicitly allow working-class candidates to use campaign funds to pay for health care, so at least one hurdle to running for Congress is eliminated for the non-wealthy.
I have hope that the FEC’s position will change. Liuba Grechen Shirley, an activist and founder of Vote Mama, successfully petitioned the FEC to use campaign funding for child care costs in 2018 while running for Congress, and it’s why I’m hoping to change the face of health care funding for candidates for years to come.
Running for Congress has taught me that the process is not designed for the working class. It’s also taught me that voices like my own are badly needed in the House of Representatives. And that starts with creating a system where people like me can run in the first place.
Nabilah Islam is a Democratic activist running for Congress in Georgia’s Seventh Congressional District.