Livia Gershon | Longreads | May 2018 | 10 minutes (2,395 words)
On Monday, May 14, I was among some ninety people gathered at the capitol building in Concord, New Hampshire. We sang old Civil Rights songs and held signs with slogans like “Starving a Child is Violence,” and “Systemic Racism is Immoral.” People told harrowing stories about growing up anxious over acquiring basic necessities and brushes with disaster when a child got sick and needed a parent at home. David Jadlocki, a pastor, gave a fire-and-brimstone sermon. “We will never be free, we will never be whole, we will never be happy, as long as our fullness is bought at the expense of another’s existence,” he said. “As long as there are children living in our nation who wake up each morning and go to bed each night gripped by the pains of hunger and the shame of poverty, we are not free.”
The crowd comprised mostly the kinds of people you would expect to find at 2 p.m. on a weekday—retirees, students, workers who could duck out early—and the civil disobedience was less dogs-and-firehoses than a polite exchange with Officer Friendly; when a group blocked a street, we were gently escorted for a brief stay in jail. None of this may have appeared particularly extreme. But the message on display was something radical, a national revival of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, taking place over 40 days, in 39 states plus Washington, D.C., with the slogan “a new and unsettling force.” The movement aims to challenge the way most Americans view the economy, by overthrowing the treasured, toxic American ideal of personal responsibility. There’s no personal shame in being poor, the campaign’s leaders argue, what’s shameful is maintaining a society in which poverty exists.
In April, for the first time since 2000, the country’s unemployment rate dropped below 4 percent. Over the past year, GDP growth has been chugging along at a 2 to 3 percent rate. Amid this happy news, however, the Poor People’s Campaign wants the country pay attention to those who have been counted out. William J. Barber II—a reverend and civil rights activist, who is a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign—wrote recently in The Atlantic, “The nation’s economic growth, especially since the Great Recession, has overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest among us.” The top one percent controls nearly 40 percent of the America’s riches, according to the Federal Reserve—a historic high—while the bottom 90 percent share about half that. The percentage of families that own their home has plummeted to nearly its lowest point on record. Among black people, the latest jobs tally found the unemployment rate to be nearly twice that of whites; for people with disabilities and those who have been incarcerated, unemployment and poverty are widespread. By the Agriculture Department’s most recent count, one in every six American families with children struggle to afford the food they need.
People in poverty find themselves apart from mainstream society. They face inadequate education budgets, restrictive voting laws, and environmental crises, which disproportionately affect low-income communities, especially those that are predominantly black. (Black children are twice as likely as white kids to have elevated levels of lead in their blood.) Beyond financial hardship and the physical stress of living on too little, accepting help from programs like Medicaid and food stamps is a source of stigma. Dawn, a woman from Idaho, wrote in a testimonial for Feeding America, a food bank, about crying in her car before she mustered the courage to apply for food stamps. “I could not believe my life had come to this,” she recalled. While standing in line at the grocery store, she overheard another shopper complain about “all these losers” using the public’s tax dollars to stock their pantries. We hear a lot about the economic insecurity of rural, white Trump voters, but the truth is that poor whites—like poor people in general—mostly don’t vote at all, which continues a pattern of disempowerment.
With the Poor People’s Campaign, Barber, along with Liz Theoharis—who is also a reverend, and director of an anti-poverty organization called the Kairos Center—are pushing a comprehensive set of legislative demands onto state governments. They seek to reverse the segregation that persists in public schools, roll back laws that keep voters from the polls, expand Medicaid in every state, and shift the country to entirely renewable energy, among other ambitious goals. Crucially, to rally a strong movement, they have emphasized the importance of poor people taking the lead.
There’s no personal shame in being poor, the campaign’s leaders argue, what’s shameful is maintaining a society in which poverty exists.
The original Poor People’s Campaign came at a time when the nation’s attitude toward poverty was moving far faster than its progress in eradicating it. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty in his State of the Union address. “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it,” he said. He transformed government aid programs—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the Economic Opportunity Act, among others—that succeeded in reducing the federal poverty rate by six percent over the next three years. But in 1967, cuts were made to furnish the War in Vietnam.
King was distressed at the shift in attention from human needs to militarism. He also came to see Johnson’s patchwork of federal aid programs as a stopgap that failed to address deeper causes of poverty. “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” he asked, speaking that summer to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “When you begin to ask the question you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
By December, King announced plans for the Poor People’s Campaign, which would launch the following spring by bringing caravans of people to Washington, D.C. to protest poverty, militarism, and materialism. He believed that poor people should guide the effort, and in February 1968, he met with someone who would prove a significant ambassador: Johnnie Tillmon, a mother of six and a leader of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). In Welfare Warriors (2005), Premilla Nadasen, a historian at Barnard College, recounts that Tillmon was a sharecropper’s daughter from Arkansas who spent decades working in the cotton fields. In 1959, she moved to California, where she worked ironing shirts in a laundry; there, she became a union shop steward, organizing for better conditions. She also joined a community association, planning afterschool activities and advocating for improvements to the public housing project where she lived.
In 1963, Tillmon fell ill and could no longer work. Though she was reluctant to apply for welfare, she had to support her family. Upon enrolling, she was horrified by the disrespect that caseworkers showed her and others. According to federal law at the time, married women were ineligible for aid (since their husbands should provide), so there were midnight raids to make sure no man was in the home of a beneficiary (since single women on welfare weren’t supposed to have sex). If a caseworker disapproved of a client’s unmade bed, a check might disappear.
Tillmon organized a group from her housing project, drawing 300 people to the first meeting. Together, they opened an office, which they staffed themselves, to fight the indignities of the welfare system. Across the country, others did the same; at its peak, Nadasen writes, the welfare rights movement had between 30,000 and 100,000 participants. Working together allowed them to overcome the idea that receiving aid was a source of shame. At public meetings, on flyers, and in formal proposals to local government agencies, the activists argued that their work as mothers was socially valuable and that they should be compensated—just as the wives of middle-class white men were “paid” through economic policies and social conventions that provided their husbands a family wage. Against those who saw jobs and marriage as the solution to their poverty, they argued for their right to make their own choices about work and relationships.
For King, finding a lasting solution to trenchant inequity would mean replacing existing government aid programs with a guaranteed annual income, available to anyone below a certain economic threshold regardless of family structure or employment. “I’m now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective,” he wrote. “The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly.” With help from Tillmon—who said that guaranteed income would “go a long way toward liberating every woman”—and the NWRO, this would become a central proposal of the Poor People’s Campaign.
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, just before the Poor People’s Campaign was about to start. Ralph Abernathy, who assumed the presidency of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, ushered the plans forward. When the first demonstrators arrived at the U.S. Capitol building, on April 29, Tillmon and 32 other NWRO officials were arrested for civil disobedience. Over the next six weeks, almost 3,000 poor people and their supporters camped out at the National Mall, building a shantytown called Resurrection City.
It’s no coincidence that, although black women were—and remain—a minority among Americans receiving government aid, they have made up the bulk of the welfare rights movement. The Poor People’s Campaign has highlighted how false narratives of poverty have been weaponized against black people throughout the country’s history. At the end of the Civil War, for instance, vagrancy laws—ostensibly meant to instill a work ethic among freed people—made unemployment a crime, often punishable by virtual re-enslavement. The same tropes have survived today. Speaking to a mostly white crowd in West Virginia in March, Barber described how racial rhetoric helped make systemic injustice that underlies poverty invisible to many whites, even as it was unavoidable to black people. “The Southern Strategy went like this—we’re not going to say, openly the ‘n-word,’ or none of that,” he said. “We’re going to talk about entitlement reform and we’re going to racialize entitlements. So that people think, primarily, that folk that are getting entitlements are all these black folks and brown folks, and they don’t even realize the folk up in the mountains. See how race works? It’s a trick.”
For many, ground down by the gospel of individual achievement, dignity seems a scarce commodity.
Always in America—and particularly in times when the accepted measures of economic growth are strong—the message to people who remain poor is that they’ve made terrible mistakes. The poor are those who have failed in the course of their education, had kids too young, got stuck their hometowns instead of moving to where jobs are. The successful, on the other hand, can congratulate themselves on hard work. A drumbeat of “personal responsibility” not only ignores the roles of inheritance, racial privilege, and luck, but also tells us that it’s a moral imperative to put economic security ahead of other life choices—living close to parents, pursuing meaningful work, or forming a family. Working ever-longer hours and acquiring ever-more wealth, at any cost to personal relationships, is often framed as admirable rather than tragic.
This leaves people in financial distress in an impossible position. Low-income kids of color, led to believe that work and perseverance naturally lead to achievement, tend to experience a drop in self-esteem and a rise in risky behavior during their middle school years, when they see how difficult it is for people in their communities to get ahead. Upwardly mobile children of poor families find themselves caught between an elite culture’s demands to pursue self-interest and the desire to help their families and friends. Paying for another semester of college can seem like a rotten pursuit if it comes at the expense of helping mom with her rent check.
To take the Poor People’s Campaign seriously—as we’d be wise to do—requires believing that none of us are essentially responsible for our circumstances. It also means acknowledging that poor people aren’t morally deficient. Intellectually, most of us know this; it’s well-documented that poor people are often more community-minded and generous than others, and that the stubborn tendency of Americans is to remain in the class in which they were born. But emotionally, the prospect of giving up credit for our earnings and advances, or accepting the idea of being secondary players in a movement led by the poor, is not easy.
The Poor People’s Campaign did achieve some victories. A delegation of Mexican American welfare recipients met with an official of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, which resulted in the inclusion of benefit recipients on welfare advisory councils and at conferences. Many local welfare rights groups also got results. New York City’s Welfare Rights Organization, for example, managed to reduce caseworkers’ discretionary power to cut recipients off, and won money for families to buy winter jackets, Easter clothes, and beds. Support came from the middle-class, including from religious organizations; protestant denominations and Catholic and Jewish groups provided most of the financial backing for the NWRO.
But King’s assassination dampened the outlook of Civil Rights organizers and the American left as a whole. Media reports from Resurrection City featured more accounts of mud and interethnic squabbling than reporting on protesters’ demands, and when the encampment was evicted, on June 24, 1968, it had achieved few of its many policy goals. Targeting of the poor, inflected with anti-black racism, was standard politics under presidents Nixon and Reagan; Bill Clinton virtually did away with cash welfare. In 2010, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a national organization that grew out of the NWRO, was destroyed after right-wing agitators advanced baseless charges of voter fraud. Congress, controlled by Democrats, voted to defund ACORN rather than defend it. Today, Republicans are creating ever-more-restrictive work requirements for food stamps and Medicaid, and Democrats look powerless to stop them.
The original Poor People’s Campaign emerged at a uniquely optimistic moment in America. Today’s climate feels just the opposite. When the crowd in New Hampshire sang “Everybody’s Got a Right to Live,” a song that goes back to Resurrection City, it was hard to imagine that it referred to a real policy proposal that the basic necessities of life should be guaranteed to all. What’s holding the country back is not any lack of monetary abundance—our country is richer than a score of others that have less poverty. Yet for many, ground down by the gospel of free markets and individual achievement, dignity seems a scarce commodity.
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Editor: Betsy Morais
Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel