A sweeping, multi-state anti-poverty movement kicks off in the age of Trump

A new report shows poverty affects Americans from all walks of life. These are the people trying to change that.

Activists are rekindling a civil rights movement to address glaring new findings featured in a study about American poverty. (CREDIT: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
Activists are rekindling a civil rights movement to address glaring new findings featured in a study about American poverty. (CREDIT: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized thousands of Americans in an anti-poverty effort popularly known as the Poor People’s Campaign, a group of progressives want to revive the effort on the heels of a sweeping new report surveying poverty in the United States.

Gathered in the nation’s capital on Tuesday, organizers and activists announced a 40-day multi-state action protesting economic disparities across the country and their underlying causes. Emphasizing the “moral fusion” and intersecting nature of oppressions, speakers pointed to The Souls of Poor Folk, a study taking stock of the breadth and depth of poverty across the United States, published the same day.

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Authored by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), The Souls of Poor Folk reviews the 50 years between the initial launch of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 and modern day. Its findings emphasize the impact systemic racism, climate change, outsized military funding, immigration crackdowns, and other factors have played in exacerbating poverty.

“There’s an enduring narrative that if the millions of people in poverty in the [United States] just worked harder, they would be lifted up out of their condition,” IPS Director John Cavanagh said before a packed room Tuesday morning. “But here we’re proving — with data and analysis spanning 50 years — that the problem is both structural barriers for the poor in hiring, housing, policing, and more.”

He added, “It is unfathomable that in the wealthiest nation in the world, medical debt is the number one cause of personal bankruptcy filings and 1.5 million people don’t have access to plumbing.”

Activists have long rallied around these issues when discussing poverty and the need for policy change, but those gathered in Washington said the new research is essential to corroborating their argument.

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“The goal is to not have only the faces, but the facts and the footnotes,” said Rev. William Barber II, founder of Repairers of the Breach, a non-partisan movement and one of hundreds of organizations behind the new Poor People’s Campaign, an “audit” of the state of poverty in the United States.

Facts and footnotes abound in the 123-page report, which centers on a number of key areas, including white supremacy and the impact of hardline immigration polices. Black, Latinx, and Native American communities disproportionately live in poverty, an issue exacerbated by “tough on crime” practices and discrepancies within the criminal justice system. Federal spending on anti-immigration measures like border strengthening and deportations, meanwhile, increased from $2 billion to $17 billion between 1976 and 2015 — a jump that has left many immigrant families struggling to meet basic costs.

Climate change and ecological devastation have also played an outsized role in influencing poverty trends. Puerto Rico serves as a leading example of this phenomenon: the island is still struggling to recover from a devastating hurricane nearly eight months out, a tragedy compounded by existing debt and limited funds. On the mainland, poor communities are more likely to face the ramifications of pollution and other environmental hazards.

According to the report, the pollution, scarcity, and affordability of water throughout the United States has also sparked stark discrepancies: lower-income households spend seven times the amount on water bills as their wealthier counterparts.

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Those problems endure across the urban-rural divide — while low-income communities in cities struggle with expensive bills, rural areas often lack basic access to sewage and piping systems. Native American and Native Alaskan communities, for instance, represent 13 of the 20 counties with the least access to plumbing, all of which are rural.

Areas like the South, Midwest, and Appalachia appear frequently in the report. Some of the poorest parts of the country, these regions may have become synonymous with support for President Trump’s candidacy but they are among those most impacted by his administration’s policies. Of the nearly 2.4 million Americans whose annual income is too high to qualify for Medicaid but too low to typically afford insurance in the marketplace, 89 percent live in Southern states. These areas are also home to large communities of color and immigrant populations disproportionately threatened by poverty.

But these regions are also home to a long history of activism. King’s organizing efforts in states like Alabama and Tennessee may have spurred the original Poor People’s Campaign, but modern efforts, like the “Moral Mondays” movement led by Rev. Barber in North Carolina, are a sign that progressive endeavors persist. Led by Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, the listening tour preceding Tuesday’s launch incorporated testimonies from areas in Alabama, West Virginia, Michigan, Mississippi, and Kentucky — all home to large low-income populations.

Outside of an emphasis on the regional and racialized nature of poverty, the report also details the impact of national and local policies on LGBTQ people, those with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations, like veterans.

Speakers on Tuesday, including the study’s authors, emphasized the intersectional nature of the findings, noting that poverty impacts millions of Americans who are white. They also downplayed the influence of the White House. “We didn’t get these ideas from any party, left or right,” Barber said, later adding, “We are not doing this just because Trump got elected. Even if he hadn’t been elected, 27 million people still would not have health care.” 

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The original Poor People’s Campaign ultimately proceeded without one of its key figures: Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis during a stop meant to draw attention to the conditions of sanitation workers in the midst of a strike. To that end, activists said the new Poor People’s Campaign would focus on elevating the voices of struggling communities and would take cues from local and state movements, rather than national organizations.

“I am not speaking about the poor, I am not speaking for the poor,” said Claudia De la Cruz, an organizer and community leader from the Bronx in New York City. “I am the poor.”

The campaign will begin on May 13 and run until June 21, culminating in a mass-mobilization at the U.S. Capitol building. Speakers said child poverty and the impact of income inequality on women and people with disabilities will be among the first issues they address.