It’s a simple equation.
“Poverty=Death” read the backdrop in large letters on the stage of the International Ballroom at the Washington D.C. Hilton. Several hundred social justice advocates from more than 30 states had gathered there for the plenary session of the Poor People’s Campaign’s Moral Poverty Action Congress, which ran from Juneteenth (June 19) to June 21.
The confab comes more than three years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, which disproportionally hit poor communities of color. Of the 1.2 million deaths, public health experts estimate that well over 300,000 lives were lost due to the inability to access healthcare. Essential workers were particularly hard hit. A joint Kaiser Health News/The Guardian investigation determined that — in the first wave alone — 3,600 healthcare professionals died, two-thirds of whom were people of color.
“Overall life expectancy declined by 2.7 years between 2019 and 2021, with AIAN [American Indians and Alaska Natives] people experiencing the largest life expectancy decline of 6.6 years, followed by Hispanic and Black people (4.2 and 4.0 years, respectively), and a smaller decline of 2.4 years for White people,” reported the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The original Poor People’s Campaign (PPC), which aspired to form a multiracial-interdenominational coalition of poor and low-wealth people, was in the planning stages when its most high-profile booster, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, in April 1968. King had come to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, who had gone out after two of their co-workers had been crushed in their garbage truck while seeking sanctuary from the rain.
PPC has always been a movement about addition, not subtraction or division, that aims through nonviolence and faith-informed action to make the world less of a hell on earth. It looks to flip the American wealth pyramid, which spends hundreds of billions on war and weapons systems while keeping the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour since 2009.
The Washington, D.C., PPC gathering was called to lobby Congress for issues such as universal healthcare, which faces long odds given the pushback from the well-funded medical industrial complex that spends lavishly to lobby politicians in Washington. “The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival” is a national crusade that began in 2018 and is dedicated to organizing the 140 million poor and low-income people in the nation, and their moral allies, to take action around the systemic injustices of racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the denial of health care, militarism, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism — all issues confronted in PPC’s literature.
Over the past few years, the PPC has seen a revival under the leadership of Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. Barber came to national prominence during his Moral Monday campaigns, which he originated in North Carolina, where he was president of the state NAACP and pastor of the Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro.
A substantial portion of the delegates sitting in the Hilton this past Juneteenth were not alive when King walked the earth, including Sierra Edmisten, 28, a mother of four from Hastings, Nebraska. “I have four kids, all ages eight and under, and we struggle quite a bit on food stamps on and off,” Edmisten tells the Voice. “I work in childcare, and I can’t afford to feed my own kids.” Edmisten chokes up a bit when she recalls her circumstances back home but goes on to describe her success working with other members of her community, with Nebraska Appleseed, a community-based, social justice nonprofit, to beat back cuts to the SNAP [food stamp] program.
“We had pushed with Covid the SNAP benefits to 165% of the poverty level,” Edmisten says. “They wanted to snap that back to 135%, and we stopped that to at least 2025. So we kept 10,000 Nebraskans, including myself, on SNAP.”
The recent PPC plenary session took on the feeling of a well-produced gospel revival, with the live band and energized choir bringing the audience to their feet. C-SPAN was in the house, live-streaming the event. On June 18, NBC News reported that Barber had shared his last sermon at his North Carolina church — where he had been pastor for 30 years — and was now retiring to transition full-time to Yale Divinity School, where he would be the founding director of the Center for Public Theology & Public Policy. When Barber took the podium in the Hilton Ballroom, he referenced his retirement and told the adoring audience that it was his ambition to “train up a 1,000 people in five years … but the problem is, I didn’t think the Lord would let me hit 60 and get pregnant again with a new idea. I am a little old to be carrying a baby.”
The focal point of the session was a panel discussion, moderated by Barber, on new research by David Brady, a professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of California Riverside. Brady’s landmark study documented that risk factors related to cumulative poverty make being poor the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. In 2019, according to Brady’s research, poverty was linked to 183,000 deaths, or 500 hundred deaths per day — and that was before the Covid pandemic. Brady’s research is based on a panel study that tracked 20,000 people from 1997 to 2019. The study excluded subjects under 15 years old, meaning it did not include infant mortality — which has historically been exponentially higher for households of color. For Brady, those qualifications meant that his findings on the impact of poverty on mortality were “conservative.”
Brady explained to the audience that his tracking research documented a clear linkage between poverty, race, and premature death. Those trends would help contribute to America’s overall life-expectancy decline. He noted that, for several decades, the U.S. poverty rate, at 17%, had been well above the 9% to 10% of the population reported in peer nations, such as France and Germany.
The foundation for these race-based economic and health disparities becomes apparent early on in life, according to Brady’s analysis. “The reality is, child poverty in the U.S. is 10% for white kids, which is too high, but it’s a similar rate of poverty to what we see in Germany and France,” Brady told the audience. “The reason why the United States has such high poverty is that we have egregiously high child poverty for Black, Latino, and Native American children. In the U.S., a third of African American children are poor. No country in the history of rich democracies has had a child poverty rate that high.”
Perhaps most disconcerting was Brady’s observation that there were three times as many poor people, such as Sierra Edmisten, who were employed than those who were not working and were living in poverty.
Barber said that Brady’s data underscored the need for “a moral movement” that “connects the dots and the injustices” that have resulted in the nation having 140 million poor and low-income people — a statistic that includes those below the poverty line as well as those who struggle month-to-month to make ends meet. Said Barber, “That’s why, in this movement, we can tell you that there are 26 million poor and low-wealth Black people — that’s 60% of the Black population. There’s 30% of white people that are poor and low-wealth, that’s 66 million…. If you’re poor and you can’t pay your light bill, when the lights go off, we are all Black in the dark.”
“We are that movement that puts everybody in the room — a Black woman from Alabama in the same space as a Kentucky coal miner. And we put the Kentucky coal miner in the same space as a Native indigenous brother and his suicided children,” Barber observed. “And what we recognize is that everybody has the right to live. Because the truth of the matter is, if you die from cancer, you don’t die Black, you don’t die white, you don’t die Republican, you don’t die Democrat. You die dead.”
Gregg Gonsalves, assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health, offered the audience some global perspective that put a sad spin on the notion of American exceptionalism. “Life expectancy in the United States — the Institute for Health Metrics in Seattle ranked us in the 40s worldwide for life expectancy,” Gonsalves told the several hundred delegates. “That does not just mean [ranking below] France and Germany. It means [below] other countries much, much poorer than we are. By 2040, we will be in the 60s in global health rankings in terms of life expectancy.”
He continued, “We came out being the highest per-capita death rate from Covid and the highest excess deaths from Covid among the G-7 — the big rich industrialized democracies. It’s not rocket science. We didn’t invest in healthcare. We didn’t invest in social protections, and it came back to bite us, basically.”
When it came time for questions from the news media, there were only two reporters who made their presence known and were given the microphone. “So much of your work in North Carolina was rooted in place and moral witness. Will you continue that kind of site-specific work in New Haven, where Yale, one of the nation’s most richly endowed universities, is set in a community where 31% of the Black population lives in poverty, as compared to 6% of the population statewide [in Connecticut]?” the Voice asked Barber.
“I am not going to continue, I have already started. I went there to do it,” Barber responded. “It’s not even an issue of continuing. Where my body goes my fight goes. And it’s not that I will continue — it’s already happening. Just last week, 1199 [the local SEIU labor union] in New Haven and Connecticut was standing up and using the Moral Monday movement to go to jail at the state capital to fight for a living wage. I am not going anywhere to lead a movement, because I don’t believe in helicopter leadership. I am going there to join in wherever the movement is.”
When the session ended, the Voice caught up with Edmisten and Megan Hamann, from Nebraska Appleseed, the nonprofit fighting for justice and opportunity for all Nebraskans. Edmisten said she felt “empowered” but said the data “was a little bit staggering. Even I wasn’t expecting the data to be as bad as it was, and so I feel there is a lot ahead of us that needs to get done.” The single mother of four said she was heartened by Barber’s reference to the role that single mothers just like her played in the creation of the first Poor People’s Campaign. “I did not know that. And so that was very exciting for me to hear, because behind every great movement, there’s always a bunch of women that are helping to push it. And to hear that this was one of those movements was awesome.”
Hamann added, “It was new and very compelling, and we talk a lot about specific state issues and policies that happen with smaller scale opportunities. But I really appreciate zooming out and talking about the big-picture systems that get us here. These are important conversations to be having, and the more people involved in these conversations the better.”
Much of the PPC’s 2024 national organizing drive is focused on mobilizing the 85 million poor and low-income people who are eligible to vote, accounting for one-third of the electorate. “There is voter suppression that’s happening in Nebraska,” Hamann explained. “We just passed through a voter initiative voter ID law, which is incredibly concerning for people like me in our state.” As voting rights advocates point out, voter ID laws hurt citizens who don’t drive and so might not have a state ID. She adds, “ We do a lot of work getting voters registered at all of our community events. Our immigrants and communities program is actually very engaged in power-building and voter education and access.”
On June 20, hundreds of PPC campaigners fanned out on Capitol Hill for some scheduled meetings and cold-call visits. By 4 p.m., hundreds of the activists had reassembled across the street from the U.S. Capitol complex, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, for a national speak-out program. “It was a great time,” Edmisten told the Voice, before the SCOTUS program got underway. “We actually got an impromptu meeting with one of Representative Don Bacon’s (R-2nd) staff members that we did not have on the books. And he actually sat and listened to us for a good 20 minutes, and we felt really heard. He actually knew a little bit.”
Ten minutes later, Barber arrived on the scene and huddled with several campaigners, including Edmisten, who had been selected to tell their personal stories of struggle “to the nation.”
“I am Sierra,” she told the crowd. “I am from Hastings, Nebraska. And I am one of many with this story,” Edmisten explained through her tears. “The first time I remember food insecurity being a real issue was when I was out of the house and pregnant with my oldest. I often skipped meals with my husband, where he would eat one day and I would eat the next.”
She continued, “In the third trimester, when they finally counted the baby as a person, we were able to eat at least once a day. After my son was born and off of formula, we were back to eating every other day for a while, so that we could make sure he could eat. This lack of nutrition, my doctor told me, was why my second pregnancy was so rough. I was on bed rest for three weeks, after I almost lost my second son, due to the lack of nutrition.
“This is uncalled for, when this is supposed to be a country of opportunity, especially when I live in our nation’s breadbasket. As a childcare worker, I also deeply care about access to quality jobs. It’s not right that so many jobs lack benefits, such as paid sick leave, retirement, and paid parental leave.
“I should not be in a hospital with my sick child, wondering if I can pay my rent at the end of the month because I can’t work while he is recovering. But I have found myself in this position multiple times. I should be worried about my son’s health, not the bills. But I don’t get that luxury. I shouldn’t be sitting in the hospital hiding my fear of losing our home from my child as he recovers. This is not the America I want for my children. We need change, and we need it now.”
“You are not alone,” Barber boomed, as he embraced Sierra.
“You are not alone, and we will not be silent anymore,” the large crowd chanted, following Barber’s lead.
Sierra was a long way from Nebraska, but she felt she had become part of something much bigger now. “It felt amazing to be able to share my story with others having the support of Bishop Barber next to me, knowing I wasn’t alone in my struggles,” she texted the Voice, before she started the long trek back home. ❖
Bob Hennelly is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist who covers labor and politics for Salon, Work-Bites, City & State, and InsiderNJ. He hosts the Stuck Nation Radio Labor Hour on Pacifica’s WBAI, 99.5 FM, and is the New York City Hall reporter for WBGO, 88.3 FM, NPR’s jazz station, in Newark, New Jersey.