Tuesday, March 29, 2016

50 Years Following the Poor People's March: A Campaign to Broaden Prosperity

2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign.  As you may recall, the campaign was conceived by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1967 at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It evolved into a movement to bring together a diverse amalgam of the poor – Whites, Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians – in a common goal of achieving economic equality.  King was assassinated the year after the campaign was launched.

We have unfinished business.

 I propose that those of us who will be involved in planning, organizing and participating in events commemorating this significant historical milestone start creating a narrative for it now.

Last year we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and we saw what happens when we don’t create the narrative. Those who oppose continuing progressive policies and programs for ending poverty got out in front of the issue and framed it more or less, like this: 50 years, billions of dollars spent and we still have poverty. ‘We lost the war.’  

Of course that’s not true. The Great Society programs adapted as part of the War on Poverty kept untold more Americans from falling into poverty over the last five decades, and many of the policies and programs were interrupted and terminated due to a lack of political will before they had a chance to succeed.

I’d like to begin by changing the name of the campaign from a Poor People’s Campaign to a Campaign to Broaden Prosperity. This reflects much of what we’ve learned about poverty in the last fifty years. Basically, that poverty is not caused by character flaws, gender or racial inferiority, or lack of initiative. Poverty in a modern economy is due more to the fast pace of technological change and the emergence of vast pools of subsistence wage earners in the global labor market. People, workers, need help adjusting.

We also know now that poor people are not dragging down the economy nor diminishing the nation’s overall economic prosperity. America continues to be the wealthiest nation in the world while it no longer  ranks in the top ten among the world’s most prosperous nations .  This is because ‘prosperity’ takes into account quality of life issues such as the availability of health care, access to higher education and the amount of capital  devoted to improving physical and social infrastructure. The problem is, clearly, that  America’s wealth is being squandered on a small percentage of  its population, negatively affecting overall prosperity.   

This results in a wide variety of social ills that go along with high poverty rates: illness, crime, violence, and how do you measure the cost of poor children growing up with lives based on what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the wounds of despair and disappointment”.

I do not feel qualified to recommend what specific policies and programs should be enacted in order to enhance broadened prosperity. Though I do know that there are many in the movement to revive the Poor People’s campaign  who  do. I will yield to them and invite them to share their ideas here. 

I am a grassroots activist for the poor and homeless in my community. I, and others, work civically so that they are not harassed or criminalized for being homeless, are provided with decent humane shelter, food, and medical care.  

On a national level, I contribute my voice to a growing understanding of what poverty really is, and what its actual causes are.

I will tell you what I have learned from experience: that you need to get to know the people you are advocating for. Almost every community in America has poor people, homeless people, or people who are on the brink of becoming homeless. Meet them. And then let their voices and experiences guide your ideas about policies.

I can unequivocally tell you that the poor I know do not want more government programs that don’t work, nor do they want charity, and especially they don’t want pity. 

What they want is a fair share of the American prosperity that they and their families and friends helped create.

(Author’s note: The Kairos Center, through its Poverty Initiative Programs, will be one of the major hubs for organizing events around commemorating and reviving the Poor People’s Campaign. For more information:  info@kairoscenter.org.)


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