Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign speaks during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol May 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Poor People’s Campaign held the news conference to call for a congressional resolution “to address poverty and low wages.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
“This is the real question — what is the cost of inequality,” said Rev. Dr. William Barber during a press conference alongside members of Congress on Thursday in Washington D.C. to unveil a resolution calling for a “Third Reconstruction” to tackle poverty and the effects of low wages across the country.
The resolution aims to achieve a variety of ambitious goals including expanding voting rights and implementing just immigration reform as well as prioritizing the needs and demands of America’s 140 million poor people. It also updates the standards used to measure poverty to reflect what it takes to achieve a decent standard of living; calls for raising the minimum wage; and ensuring paid family and medical leave for all workers. And it would establish a federal jobs program that prioritizes low income communities and redirects spending on the military and prisons to invest in these policies.
“This is a moral issue rooted in the commitments of our Constitution that the first thing we had to do is establish justice, promote the general welfare, and to ensure equal protection under the law,” Barber said. He was joined by several elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who invited their colleagues to co-sponsor the Third Reconstruction resolution.
“This pandemic has exposed the toll of long-standing interlocking inequities stemming from structural racism, poverty, economic inequality, ecological devastation, and many more systemic barriers keeping people living on the edge,” Lee said. “140 million people are poor, or are one health care crisis, job loss or emergency away from economic devastation. So we must prioritize their needs and allow them, and give them, the opportunities to live in dignity and with hope.”
Jayapal pointed to bloated military spending, a reluctance to accept a $15 minimum wage, tax avoidance by large corporations and other factors as compounding the burden on America’s working poor.
“Let me be clear, we allow poverty when we take no action to eradicate it,” she said.
During 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought into glaring focus systemic barriers from access to health care, to whether people can work from home or work at all. Meanwhile, the wealthiest citizens and big companies continued to increase their own wealth. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, saw his net worth increase by $13 billion, Forbes reported. Another Forbes analysis found that in Wisconsin, billionaires saw their net worth increase from $39.4 billion to $50.5 billion between March 18, 2020 and January 20, 2021, a 28% jump. Although President Joe Biden has expressed support for raising corporate tax rates, some progressive lawmakers say the measures are not enough.
Barber, through his Poor People’s Campaign, has connected with Americans living in poverty across the country. Often, he says, racial and political divides break down when people recognize their common struggle. During the rally at the U.S. Capitol press conference, Barber spoke about a white, working-class woman he met in North Carolina.
“She has struggled for years to make ends meet,” he said. “She told us how one time, she was believing the distortions of religious nationalism. And even white supremacy. But, at the age of 44, she voted for the first time in her life in this last election. She said, ‘I voted for the candidates I heard campaigning on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and were talking about defending workers, dealing with racism, and building from the ground-up.”
Over the last three years, the Poor People’s Campaign has developed a network across 45 states that includes over 2,000 faith leaders and 300 partner organizations. In addition to pushing the Third Reconstruction resolution, the group is building toward a National Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers Assembly on June 21. A 365-day nationwide campaign will follow, ultimately leading to a Mass Poor Peoples and Low-Wage Workers Assembly and Moral March on Washington in June 2022.
Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore is also among those supporting the Third Reconstruction resolution. Speaking during the press conference Moore recalled how, in 1996, “our governor ended welfare as we knew it, snatched the safety net from up under babies and children so that he could put them out there at the mercy of the low wage workforce.”
“I mean, poverty is a deliberate thing ya’ll,” she added. “We do it on purpose.” Those memories fueled Moore’s decision, she told Barber, to “stand ready to work with these authors and your famous sermons to put some meat on these dry bones of this resolution and have them make this document become a living soul.”
“I stand here too aware, too aware, of so many people who have died from poverty and inequality in this, the richest country in the world,” said Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, who co-chairs the Poor People’s Campaign with Barber. She decried “a nation that has the resources to fully address the curse of poverty; a nation that throws away more food than it takes to feed every person and yet food lines continue to grow; a nation that has five empty housing units for every person and family and yet evictions continue to rise.”
Theoharis, who grew up in Milwaukee, stressed that, “We have the solutions, they’re right here. They’re right here in the Third Reconstruction Resolution. And so, we must build the political will, the compelling power, the resolve to lift from the bottom. So that all of our society, starting with the poor, the bruised, the battered, the marginalized, the excluded, the under-paid, may rise.”
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