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It's a poverty emergency and we must act

Guest content
20 October 2023

Lives cut short by poverty and low-wealth is a moral indictment of a society that is abandoning millions amid abundance. This crisis requires an emergency response, writes Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis for Common Dreams.

In the richest country in human history, poverty has become a death sentence. Yes, despite the fact that the United States throws out more food than is needed to feed every hungry person, that the nation spends more and has more cutting edge developments in health care than any other nation, and despite the GDP growing exponentially over the past years, poverty is the fourth largest killer. Poor people can expect to die 12 or 13 years sooner than rich people in the US, with the death rate gap between rich and poor increasing by 570% since 1980.

In a recent series on declining life expectancy, the Washington Post reports that, “The United States is failing at a fundamental mission—keeping people alive.” This new series shows that the US has a significantly lower life expectancy than other nations with similar economic development. The Post continues, “America is increasingly a country of haves and have-nots, measured not just by bank accounts and property values but also by vital signs and grave markers. Dying prematurely, The Post found, has become the most telling measure of the nation’s growing inequality.”

For too long, poverty has been pushed from the national agenda. For too long, corporate profits have been put before people.

This death measurement indeed is telling. It paints a picture of a country with the resources to raise wages, end homelessness, expand health care, and invest in child care and other needed resources to help struggling families but refuses to do so. It demonstrates a society (with Congress as the speartip) that keeps proposing cuts to health care, food assistance, education, and more even after policy experts have shown that such cuts result in suffering and death.

As theologians and preachers, we know this is not just a health crisis (although Medicaid cuts that could throw as many as 24 million off its rolls is most definitely a healthcare emergency of epic proportions). Lives cut short by poverty and low-wealth is a moral indictment of a society that is abandoning millions amid abundance.

In September, the US Census published the most recent poverty numbers. The US Census report marks a significant increase of the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) from 2021 to 2022, nearly doubling child poverty in the most significant growth in child poverty since the SPM was adopted. These numbers show that 41% of the US population is poor or low-income; 135 million people cannot afford a couple hundred dollar emergency. This reality is an emergency, and anyone who claims to value life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness must treat it as such.

This crisis of poverty and low-wealth requires an emergency response. It requires an emergency meeting between poor and low-income leaders, clergy, economists, public policy experts and the president of the United States at the White House to hear stories and solutions to poverty and policy murder.

It is calling us to a season of direct action, including moral assemblies at state capitols across the country, imploring our elected leaders to support an agenda that tackles poverty and other systemic injustices because there are policy solutions to all of these problems. The Third Reconstruction we are building towards is a revival of our constitutional commitment to establish justice, provide for the general welfare, end decades of austerity, and recognize that policies that center the 140 million poor and low-income people in the country are also good economic policies that can heal and transform the nation.

It means we are committing to convene and converge on Washington D.C. on June 15, 2024 for a Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers Assembly and Moral March on Washington. And it compels a massive get out the vote effort to enliven and enlarge the electorate of poor and low-wealth voters who hold the power to shift the political calculus of the nation and vote for truth and life and love and justice.

For too long, poverty has been pushed from the national agenda. For too long, corporate profits have been put before people. For too long, we have heard the false narrative that poverty may be unfortunate but inevitable and poor people are to blame for their poverty and if people just worked harder and prayed more, they would not be poor anymore. But as Ms. Yara Allen writes in the anthem of our movement, The Poor People's Campaign, “Somebody’s been hurting our people, people are dying from poverty and policy murder, it’s gone on for too long, and we won’t be silent anymore.”

Original source: Common Dreams

Image credit: Flickr/Susan Melkisethian, Inequality.org