Every September the US Census Bureau releases new data on the state of poverty in America. On that day, the issue receives more attention from the media than it does throughout the rest of the year. Did the poverty rate rise or fall? What do the numbers say about the current administration or Congress? What do policy experts believe are the implications of the data?
But no matter what the Census data reveals—and yesterday we learned, for example, that in 2018 the number of uninsured people rose by nearly 2 million and median incomes stagnated, while 27 million people were lifted out of poverty by Social Security—what is really needed to make dramatic progress towards the elimination of poverty remains unchanged, as it has for the past 40 or so years: a mass movement led by directly impacted people who will organize, take direct action, and create the political will necessary to embrace available solutions.
I’ve written or spoken some version of that sentence so many times over the past decade that it brings to mind the iconic typewriter scene in The Shining, in which Wendy Torrance discovers that the novel her husband has been working on is just reams of paper with a single sentence written over and over. Similarly, reading the responses to the Census data from many policy experts and elected officials year in, year out can produce a somewhat maddening effect. In our conversations about poverty we are nipping at the edges, participating in the chatter, and missing the elephant in the room: People are poor because our system is structured not only to produce poor people but to keep them divided. Schools are separate and unequal; jobs don’t pay enough to cover basics like housing; health care is a privilege; profits are hoarded at the top; voting rights are denied; the judicial system refuses poor people fair representation and targets people of color. The list goes on.
So it was a great surprise that I had a feeling of hope, when—one day prior to the Census data release—I attended a press conference for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The campaign, including organizers from more than 20 states, was there to announce a nine-month, 22-state tour to mobilize, organize, register voters, and educate people about poverty and solutions to it—the campaign is calling it the “We Must Do M.O.R.E. Tour.” It will culminate in a June 2020 mass mobilization in the nation’s capital “to demonstrate [the campaign’s] power.”
Part of my optimism is based on the campaign’s track record. In just over a year, it has established itself in 43 states and the District of Columbia. It is led by people directly impacted by poverty. It claimed the largest wave of civil disobedience in history in state capitals across the country in June 2018—more than 200 actions over 40 days and thousands of people arrested. Along with the Institute for Policy Studies, the campaign released a budget to show how the government could pay for the campaign’s demands for things like guaranteed health care, free public college, universal child care, and addressing climate change. And it got every major Democratic presidential candidate to discuss poverty as a group in Washington, DC, responding to questions from directly impacted people in a way that no one has ever done before. The campaign also obtained a commitment from each candidate to push for a presidential debate focused exclusively on poverty.
My optimism is also based on the campaign’s steadfast refusal to silo issues impacting the approximately 140 million poor and low-wealth people who make up more than 40 percent of the population of the United States. Normally, anti-poverty advocates focus on food, or wages, or health care, or discrimination, or voting rights—the idea being that it takes so much work to win on any of those fronts, and a victory can make an important difference in people’s lives. That’s reasonable, but it means we are working on the symptoms rather than the disease itself.
In contrast, the Poor People’s Campaign talks about “five interlocking injustices” that create and sustain poverty: systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation (think climate change and pollution), the war economy (think budget and militarism), and our distorted moral narrative (think blaming the poor, and race-baiting). It also notes that the political and religious leaders who are doing harm to low-wealth people are the same people doing harm to people of color, the LGBTQ community, workers, teachers, the environment, poor white people, a struggling middle class, immigrants, and others who are oppressed. The campaign therefore organizes across constituencies, pushing people out of silos—the only way to take on an opposition that is remarkably unified and clear in its mission to gut taxes, gut regulation, and protect profits and privilege.
Finally, my optimism is based on the timing and the strategy of the campaign’s current effort. The campaign has already been organizing, and mobilizing, and registering—so what is different about this moment? Campaign cochair the Rev. Dr. William Barber II said the campaign has spent the past two to three years “waking people up to the stories and facts about 140 million poor and low wealth people…. But it’s not the waking, it’s the rising. It’s not enough to be woke, because you can be woke but still in bed.”
The campaign will now target voter registration in districts where, according to Barber, “if just two percent of poor and low wealth people and their allies are organized,” it could change electoral outcomes. “We know where those pockets are, and we know where we can make a huge electoral difference,” Barber said. According to Pew, 40 percent of eligible voters didn’t vote in 2016; more than half of them had family incomes under $30,000 and 42 percent were nonwhite and without a college degree. The campaign also has a goal to train 30,000 more directly impacted people at which point it will be comprised of more than one million people. On June 20, 2020—after the major primaries and before the party conventions—the campaign will mobilize a mass assembly and march on Washington, DC, with the intent to reveal “a movement that votes.”
Campaign co-chair the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis said the 25-state tour is about “bringing the solutions and building the power to enact those solutions.” She said it will “put a face, put names, put places” on injustice, and show that solutions are readily available in the very places where people are suffering. We need that—fewer numbers about poverty in the abstract, more stories and getting to know people in their own words.
While a movement can be built whether or not the media is covering it, I hope that reporters interested in inequality and an economy that works will visit the places and hear the stories where people in poverty are organizing for change (one of the greatest stories about poverty is that its existence and persistence—even when the data suggests myriad solutions—hasn’t really been considered a story). As for anti-poverty advocates who have been doing underappreciated work for decades, I would respectfully offer that there is no new set of talking points, no new numbers, and no new policy paper that will create the real change you seek. We know from our nation’s history how transformative change happens—it’s time to engage with, and be led by, people who are poor.