America once fought a war against poverty – now it wages a war on the poor
After the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign declared silence was betrayal, we are coming together to stand up to the public policy violence that is ravaging our society
Sun 15 Apr 2018 06.00 EDT Last modified on Mon 16 Apr 2018 14.05 EDT
The Rev William Barber and the Rev Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign, speak at the National Civil Rights museum on 3 April. Photograph: Mark Humphrey/AP
In 2013, Callie Greer’s daughter Venus died in her arms after a battle with breast cancer. If caught early, the five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with breast cancer is close to 100%. But Venus’s cancer went undiagnosed for months because she couldn’t afford health insurance. She lived in Alabama, a state that refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Venus’s death is not an isolated incident – more than 250,000 people like her die in the United States from poverty and related issues every year.
Access to healthcare is just one of the issues facing the 140 million people who live in poverty in the US today. Over the past two years, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has carried out a listening tour in dozens of states across this nation. We have met with tens of thousands of people from El Paso, Texas, to South Charleston, West Virginia, to Selma, Alabama, where we met Callie, gathering testimonies from poor people and listening to their demands for a better society.
On Tuesday, we announced a Poor People’s Campaign Moral Agenda, a set of demands that is drawn from this listening tour, as well as an audit of America we conducted with allied organizations, including the Institute for Policy Studies and the Urban Institute, 50 years after the original Poor People’s Campaign.
As grim as the situation was in 1968, the appalling truth is deep inequalities still exist and, in some ways, we are worse off.
While our nation once fought a war against poverty, now we wage a war on the poor. The richest 1% in our country own more wealth than the bottom 90% combined, tightening their grip on political power to shape labor, tax, healthcare and campaign finance policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many. A full 60% more Americans now live below the official poverty line than in 1968, and 43% of all American children live below the minimum income level considered necessary to meet basic family needs.
In the last eight years alone, 23 states have passed voter suppression laws – gutting the Voting Rights Act civil rights leaders helped secure more than a half century ago. This is the true hacking of our democracy, allowing people to win office who deny healthcare, living wages, cut necessary social programs and push policies that promote mass incarceration, hurt immigrants and devastate our environment.
These racist laws hurt not just people of color, but poor whites whose lives are upended by the politicians put in office by the violent extremism that is voter suppression.
Coretta Scott King would call all of this violence. She’d say that violence isn’t just killing people with guns, but denying them living wages, allowing them to live in ghetto housing. We rightfully get in the streets and protest when the police shoot unarmed black men, but we must also stand up to the public policy violence that is ravaging our society. We must no longer allow inattention to violence to keep the poor, people of color and other disenfranchised people down.
People are poor not because they are lazy, not because they are unwilling to work hard, but because politicians have blocked living wages and healthcare and undermined union rights and wage increases. Our nation’s moral narrative is shaped by Christian nationalists whose claims run contrary to calls in the Scripture, which is very clear that we need to care for the poor, immigrants and the least among us.
There needs to be a new moral discourse in this nation – one that says being poor is not a sin but systemic poverty is.
If you claim to be evangelical and Christian and have nothing to say about poverty and racism, then your claim is terribly suspect. There needs to be a new moral discourse in this nation – one that says being poor is not a sin but systemic poverty is.
The Moral Agenda we announced on Tuesday demands a massive overhaul of the nation’s voting rights laws, new programs to lift up the 140 million Americans living in poverty, immediate attention to ecological devastation and measures to curb militarism and the war economy.
We call for major changes to address systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and our distorted moral narrative, including restoration and expansion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, repeal of the 2017 federal tax law, implementation of federal and state living wage laws, universal single-payer healthcare and clean water for all.
To make sure these demands are heard, poor and disenfranchised people from coast to coast are preparing for 40 days of action centered around statehouses and the US Capitol. Over six weeks this spring, people of all races, colors and creeds are joining together to engage in nonviolent moral fusion direct action, massive voter mobilization and power building from the bottom up.
To prepare for the 40 days, poor and disenfranchised people, clergy and advocates will participate in nonviolent direct-action trainings across the country on Saturday.
Now, 50 years after leaders of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign declared silence was betrayal, we are coming together to break the silence and tell the truth about the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and our distorted moral narrative.
All over the country, poor people like Callie are joining together, with support from clergy and advocates. As she said on Tuesday in unveiling our demands: “We not going to keep crying. We’re going to march, we’re going to protest and we’re going to vote.”
- The Rev Dr William Barber and the Rev Dr Liz Theoharis are co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival
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