The moral march on D.C. (Photo by Steve Pavey/Poor People’s Campaign/Repairers of the Breach/Kairos Center)
Thousands assembled in Washington D.C. for the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) Moral March on Washington Saturday. The march, the fruit of many months of organizing, gathered poor and low income people from over 40 states. They lined Pennsylvania Avenue, filling the streets with emotional testimonies of enduring the interlocking injustices underscored by the campaign. Alongside them stood faith leaders, union leaders, attorneys working in the realm of social justice, and other allies.
In Wisconsin alone, more than 2 million people live in poverty or low-wealth conditions. That’s about 35% of the population. Taking the entire country into account, the number swells to 140 million, across lines of ethnicity and gender identity. In Wisconsin, the minimum wage is just 29.9% of a living wage that would provide adequate support in the state. Bishop William Barber II, co-chair of the PPC and president of Repairers of the Breach, stressed that the problems go beyond the numbers. “There is something that is even more grotesque,” said Barber. “The regressive policies which produce 140 million poor and low-wealth people to not benign.” Barber called them “forms of policy murder.”
While the extent of many systemic injustices was laid bare by the pandemic, those issues predated the COVID era. Prior to the pandemic, poor and low-wealth people died at a rate of 700 a day, or 250,000 a year. A 2022 study done by the PPC in partnership with the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and other organizations, drove the point home. It found that during the pandemic, people living in poorer U.S. counties died at nearly two times the rate of people who lived in richer counties.
The study noted that counties with the highest death rates shared several key characteristics. Over 300 of the counties with the highest death rates had a poverty rate of 45%, or one and a half times higher than counties with lower death rates. In those high-casualty counties, median incomes were on average $23,000 less than counties with lower death rates. An executive summary of the study states, “The population across these counties is 56% white, 21% Hispanic, 16% Black, 4% Indigenous, and 1% Asian, accounting for approximately 2% of the U.S. population, or 7.5 million people.”
Many of the people who arrived for the march on D.C. translated the numbers into lived experience. “My children are survivors just by being alive,” said Maya Torralba, an indigenous mother from Oklahoma. “It is not enough to be resilient and survive, it is our human right to grow and thrive.” Her daughter, Kateri Daffron, described what it’s like growing up in poverty in Anadarko, Oklahoma. “Although I moved away, I am still in poverty,” said Daffron. “I cannot leave poverty. I am a 17-year-old child and my country has failed me.”
Mark Denning, a Wisconsin resident and member of the Oneida Nation, shared his own experiences. Denning, who spoke during a Poor People’s Campaign mobilization in Madison in March, has lost three of his children to suicide. “To all the fathers that have lost their children, I grieve with you,” said Denning, speaking on the eve of Fathers Day. “We have lost all three of our children to suicide and pain and killing drugs. Our children should have been given a fighting chance.” Denning feels that if his children had access to the mental health treatment they needed, then perhaps things would have been different. “There should’ve been crime scene tape surrounding each one of their bodies,” said Denning. “There should be crime scene tapes around each one of our children’s bodies that fall in the streets.”
Others spoke to efforts to restrict voting access. Dontae Sharpe of North Carolina is formerly incarcerated, and received a pardon of innocence. “We don’t believe you should ever have your right to vote taken away,” said Sharpe. “The rights restoration for anyone in the community should be the federal standard immediately. Because it’s important. It’s an emergency. If you are living in a community, your kids are going to school. You’re paying taxes. You should be able to have a say in laws that will govern your life. You should be able to vote for judges, district attorneys, school boards and members of Congress.”
Workers who have won union representation in parts of the country also shared their experiences. Nikki Taylor, one of seven Starbucks workers fired in Memphis after they started an organizing drive stressed that the importance of resolve. Although from her perspective the company thought it won after they were fired, “Baby, we got that union,” she said, “we won.” Starbucks workers in Wisconsin have also begun making strides in a local unionization movement.
Fred Redmond, secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO, alluded to a still ongoing fight. “We all know that we should not have to be here,” said Redmond. “It’s a failure of the system and not of the people. Being poor is not the failure. Being poor is not the crime. The crime is in accepting a system that allows for poverty. Poverty exists because we allow it to exist.” Bernice King, the daughter of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and CEO of the King Center, encouraged the campaign to carry her father’s torch.
Guadelupe de la Cruz of Florida testified to the need for immigration reform especially as migration only increases. “When immigrants come to my state, they are fleeing violence, war, and poverty,” said de la Cruz. “But what do they find when they arrive in the richest democracy in the world? They are turned away or told they are criminals and don’t deserve any rights. They are humiliated, shackled with ankle monitoring bracelets and left to manage the immigration system on their own. ” De la Cruz added that, “this is why I’m here in Washington. The U.S. Congress must step up and protect people in Florida and other states where anti-immigrant forces have captured our democratic system.”
Many more spoke to the impact of the war economy, pollution which affects low income communities, and lack of access to healthcare. “Fifty-four years ago,” said King, “my father started the Poor People’s Campaign to revolutionize the economic landscape of our nation. Unfortunately, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not live long enough to see it come to fruition. Fifty-four years later, poverty still has a grip on the soul of our nation. I join in solidarity with the chorus of voices that say we won’t be silent anymore.”
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said that Saturday represented the kind of movement feared most by the rich and powerful. “It’s why they spend so much time and money trying to deny the right to vote, why they attack protesters, spread lies meant to narrow our vision and limit our aspirations, divide us up by issue, region, race, gender and sexual orientation, immigration status, political party,” said Theoharis. “But we’re here, we’re poor, we aren’t going anywhere, we have come together and we will stay together and we will transform this nation from the bottom up.” The campaign has long argued that poor and low-wealth people, in fact, represent a powerful voting block.
Barber pointed out that the PPC has repeatedly asked President Joe Biden to meet with a delegation of poor and low-wealth people. “I know the phones and emails work,” said Barber. “We demand a White House poverty summit with President Biden, to allow this administration to meet with a delegation of poor and low wealth people, religious leaders and economists—now!.”
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