More than nine hundred people crowded into the Church of the Epiphany, an Episcopal church in Washington, DC. They had gathered to hear Rev. William Barber, the dynamic and prophetic co-leader (with Rev. Liz Theoharis) of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. They came, not only to hear Rev. Barber but also to sing and bond and listen to poor people tell their own stories.
This late January gathering is one of many that the Poor People’s Campaign is having all over the country, leading up to a Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington on June 20, 2020. With 43 state coordinating committees actively working in communities, Barber and Theoharis are planning to peacefully “take it to the streets” in downtown Washington, and to make the statement that “everybody’s got the right to live.”
To assert that everyone has a right to live seems obvious. But many of those who live in poverty have to fight to live. The poor have to scramble to eat, to afford medication, to find an affordable place to live. They have to watch their neighborhoods being decimated by gentrification, as rising housing costs push long-time residents out. As many as 45,000 people a year die because they don’t have health insurance. And more than 10 percent of the US population is “food insecure,” which means that they either skip meals, eat less at meals, or cannot afford nutritious food. One in six children is food insecure.
Several of the poor people told their stories, while Congresswomen Barbara Lee (D-CA), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), and Brenda Lawrence (MI), among others, listened to the harrowing personal narratives from homeless people, a deaf student whose financial aid was cut when her father got a small raise, a woman who was arrested and incarcerated in front of her children when she sold food on the street, and many more. The audience was urged not to clap but to shout supportively, “Somebody is hurting our people, and we won’t be silent anymore.”
Poverty is trauma. Poverty can be the source of enormous stress, and perhaps even some mental illness (though you don’t have to be impoverished to be crazy!). Poverty or near-poverty impacts 140 million people, nearly half of us. Rev. Barber says we must have “righteous indignation” about poverty.
Instead, we seem to accept poverty as something we can do nothing about. We walk by homeless people on the street, drive past homeless encampments under freeways. Some of us roll up our noses and are appalled by the odors that some homeless emit without wondering why there are odors and whether there are places where they can get showers or a bath. Some of us find the homeless “unsightly” and lobby to have them moved from visible commercial corridors and upscale neighborhoods to places where we don’t have to look at or think about their plight. But homelessness is the most visible manifestation of poverty. And when we endeavor to render the homeless invisible, we are also attempting to eliminate the scourge of poverty. Dr. Martin Luther King once called poverty “an abomination” and compared it to cannibalism. Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated Dr. King’s birthday, but there were too few mentions of poverty.
Indeed, while some of the presidential candidates have paid attention to economic structure, fewer have candidly discussed ways they would reduce or eliminate it. Speeches and debates go by with nary a mention of poverty. The candidates who choose to ignore poverty seem to forget that poor people vote. Or perhaps they are counting on poor people to be absent from the polls, especially when some forms of voter suppression require voters to incur additional costs to vote. Between 2016 and 2018, hundreds of polling places were closed, and if some have their way, there will be even fewer in 2020. Our electoral system is biased against Black people, Brown people, poor people.