This week (December 4) marks the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). The PPC was created in 1967 by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to address issues of unemployment, housing shortages for the poor, and the general impact of poverty on the lives of millions of Americans. Sadly, 50 years later, the divide between the “haves and the have-nots” has not shrunk but has grown even wider.
The PPC was led by Dr. Martin Luther King as he expanded his advocacy for civil rights to fighting for human rights for all of society. The PPC ran from December 4, 1967 until June 19, 1968. The aim of the PPC was to have federal legislation passed to ensure full employment and to promote the construction of housing for low-income people. The PPC wanted the government to take on the issue of poverty in America and to raise the quality of life of our impoverished citizens.
Four months following the creation of the PPC, Dr. King was assassinated (April 4, 1968). The Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided to continue the PPC despite the tragedy of Dr. King’s death. Rev. Ralph Abernathy was chosen to be the new leader of the movement and the previously scheduled march on Washington was postponed from April 22 to May 12. Many people from diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds came together during May and June 1968 to disrupt life in Washington and to pressure the federal government to take action to end poverty. The protestors created “Resurrection City.” Resurrection City lasted until June 19, 1968, closing up two weeks after Senator Robert Kennedy’s assassination. While thousands of people descended on Washington in the Spring of 1968, the deaths of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy, combined with bad weather and division among the PPC’s leadership kept the number of demonstrators from ever reaching the expected 50,000 participants.
However, even though the number of protestors was disappointing, the coming together of blacks, impoverished whites, Latinos, and Native Americans under one umbrella to demand our government take action to end poverty in the richest country in the world was a wakeup call to our elected representatives. The confluence of people from so many different backgrounds, all suffering from economic injustices, showed the powers-that-be that poverty was not just a problem facing people of color but millions of other families who never recovered from The Great Depression.
Over the past 50 years, while the government has implemented many programs to “end” poverty, the problem remains America’s greatest challenge. The war on poverty is America’s longest war and–with the current focus in Trump’s Washington on helping the rich get richer with the middle and lower-income citizens footing the bill–the end of the war is nowhere in sight. Because of this misguided notion that “trickle down” economics will solve our problems, the Poor People’s Campaign of 1967 has been resurrected. In January 2017 the National Truth Commission on the Right to Not be Poor was convened. The result was the creation of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. This reinvigorated PPC is being co-chaired by Rev. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. Today’s PPC is challenging the ideas “that we should accept poverty in the midst of plenty” and that “the poor are responsible for the social ills of poverty.” New York State is one of 25 states and the District of Columbia that are actively participating in the revived Poor People’s Campaign.
The Truth Commission on Poverty in New York State has held numerous gatherings around the state. Last week the Commission gave a report on its findings at the First United Methodist Church in Schenectady. As I sat in a pew listening to the speakers summarizing the Commission’s findings, one thought kept nagging at me: That our government has done virtually nothing to end poverty, but much to keep the war on poverty from ever ending. This idea is not mine. I was first made aware of this phenomenon in a sociology class I was taking at Siena College in the early 1970s. The professor posited that welfare was established to give poor people (especially people of color) just enough funds to exist, but not enough to help them rise up and out of poverty. He went on to say that welfare was really meant to keep blacks from moving out of the ‘projects’ and the ‘ghetto’ and moving into white neighborhoods.
One way that this repression of the poor can be clearly seen is the difference between the federal poverty income level and the United Way’s ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) Threshold (see: nytruthcommission.org/statistics/ ). For a single person, the 2017 federal poverty rate is $12,060 a year and for a family of four it’s $24,600. ALICE, which is based on a “Household Survival Budget” – an estimate of what it costs for housing, childcare, food, transportation, health care and taxes – estimates that for a family of four living in New York, it takes an income of $62,472 to “survive.” How, then, if the true cost of everyday living is over $60,000 a year, can the feds set a poverty income level of under $25,000 a year? If we accept that ALICE’s numbers are more realistic (which is easy to accept by just looking at the median gross rent in Albany of $920/month or $11,020/year), then the federal poverty rate of 13 percent in the Capital District is a farce. ALICE’s more realistic formula shows that 40 percent of households are below the “Household Survival Budget.”
Thus, while the Poor People’s Campaign of the 1960s shed a bright light on poverty in America, 50 years later, the causes of poverty as espoused by Dr. King: wages set to keep workers down, not pay a person’s true worth, a lack of affordable housing, little or no access to affordable health care, etc. are still with us today. The PPC: A National Call for Moral Revival effort that is now taking shape will need all of us, working together to change the conversation from one that glorifies the wealthiest to one that acknowledges the war on poverty is not over. Furthermore, let’s not allow the rhetoric we will hear from our elected officials in Washington praising Dr. King’s efforts on the 50th anniversary of his assassination blind us to the truth. The truth of Dr. King’s vision is that living wages and access to food, housing, and medical care are human rights that must be afforded to all people, not just the chosen few.