When the United Nations surveyed the conditions of extreme poverty in the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, in 2017, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston found “people barely surviving,” “sewage-filled yards,” “unpayable debt, incarceration,” “community destruction wrought by opioids,” and much more.
The 10-day trip culminated in a report that blasted the country’s contrasts between “private wealth and public squalor” and called on immediate policy interventions.
Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II has spent his life bearing witness to the oppressed, destitute, and abandoned people of America.
He has fought tirelessly to end poverty and the “interlocking injustices of systemic racism, ecological devastation, the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.”
In 2018, Rev. Barber launched the “Poor People’s Campaign” — reviving Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s movement of the same name, launched 50 years earlier in 1968 — to bring attention to this widespread plight and build the political power to end the injustice of poverty.
On June 20, Rev. Barber is hosting the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, a digital broadcast that will explore these issues and call on people to organize around the campaign in their own communities.
Rev. Barber spoke with Global Citizen by email about poverty in the US, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the current protest movement surrounding police brutality and systemic racism.
Global Citizen: The United Nations has criticized the US for its failure to address rampant poverty despite all its wealth. Why is poverty so widespread in the US and why is it so often overlooked? How can we get politicians to take it seriously?
Rev. Barber: For far too long, people in power have refused to see poverty. The federal government says 40 million people are poor. But when we looked closely at what it takes to make it in the US today, we found that 140 million people are poor and low income. And while the nearly half of the country that is living with their backs against the wall is disproportionately Black and brown, the majority of people who are struggling in raw numbers are white. Republicans too often radicalize poverty, pretending like it's a Black issue. But Democrats have too often run from it, buying into neoliberal fictions that ignore almost half of Americans.
So the first thing we have to do is demand that America see her poverty. That's why we've built this movement at the grassroots in almost every state, and it’s why we're mobilizing a historical gathering of poor people and their allies on June 20. We've got to put a face on poverty first, and then we have to demonstrate the power of poor people to shift the moral narrative and change the priorities in American public life.
What are the core demands of the Moral March on June 20?
Our analysis is that you can't deal with poverty alone. It is always tied to the interlocking injustices of systemic racism, ecological devastation, the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism. Our basic demand is the reconstruction of local, state, and federal policies to address these interlocking injustices.
So we're saying if we stop spending on endless war and occupation and if we insist on the wealthy paying their fair share, then we can afford to ensure universal health care, living wages, fully funded public education, affordable housing, and a robust program to address the climate crisis. And we're saying all of this can happen only if we protect the right to vote for every American. We aren't just asking for one thing. The lobbyists who go in and out of Congress every day don't just ask for one thing. We're demanding a reconstruction of everything. And we're saying it's a fundamental moral principle of this democracy that everybody has a right to live.
What has the COVID-19 pandemic exposed in the US?
We know this virus does not discriminate. But it spreads through the fissures of societies that are plagued by inequality. That the US is leading the world in deaths from COVID-19 should be a sign to all of us that our public life is broken. Our democracy is hurting. And we need a radical revolution of values to turn us toward public policies that promote life.
What are your thoughts on the current protest movement against police violence and systemic racism? Do you think enough momentum is being generated for systemic change? What advice would you give protesters in terms of long-term movement building?
When I look at the people marching in the streets, I see the same diversity that has come together to produce genuine reconstruction throughout this nation's history. It has always taken fusion movements to bring about real change. And it has always taken a long-term struggle — in the streets, in the suites, at the courthouse, and at the ballot box. So I would say to those who are protesting: Take care of one another. You are essential workers in the midst of this pandemic, and you need the same PPE other essential workers need. But don't stop. Press on. Link up with folks who've been in this struggle for a long time. Join us for June 20, and let's build together toward the greatest nonviolent march in US history — a march to the polls to demand leadership that will work for real reconstruction.