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'Everybody has the right to live': The visionary budget at the heart of our moral uprising

Guest content
19 June 2019

Basic living standards like adequate housing, health care, education, safe drinking water, and access to work and fair wages are rights, not privileges. A moral society will guarantee these to ALL people, write Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev Dr Liz Theoharis. 

The following excerpt was written as the foreward to the new report—Poor People’s Moral Budget: Everybody Has the Right to Live—released jointly by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and the Institute for Policy Studies on June 17, 2019.

As we have traveled around these yet to be United States of America, from Appalachia to Alabama, California to the Carolinas, Mississippi to Maine, the delta of the south to the coal miner’s home in Kentucky, we have seen the pain and heard the cry of every race, creed, color, and sexuality that our moral values and economic policies are out of sync. Indeed, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has suggested, our state and national budgets prove that many of our elected leaders and their lobbyists treasure the military, corporate tax cuts, and welfare for the wealthy while they give rugged individualism, shame and blame, unfair wages, and a shredded social safety net to the poor.

This is a willful act of policy violence at a time when there are 140 million poor and low-income people – over 43.5% of the population – in the richest country in the history of the world. This includes 39 million children, 74.2 million women, 60.4% or 26 million Black people, 64.1% or 38 million Latinx people, 40.8% or 8 million Asian people, 58.9% or 2.14 million Native and Indigenous people, and 33.5% or 66 million White people. Increasing the harm on these 140 million, since 2010, there has been an onslaught of attacks on voting rights in state legislatures: racialized voter suppression and gerrymandering have helped to smuggle state leaders into office, who then turn around and pass policies that hurt the poor and marginalized. Life-giving social programs are being eviscerated to make way for increased spending on war, militarizing our border, and tax payouts to Wall Street.

As clergy who minister and work alongside poor people of every race, creed, age, gender, and sexuality across America, we know these realities pre-date the Trump administration. Income inequality and wealth disparity have increased under Republicans and Democrats over the past four decades, but now there is increased policy disdain for the poor. Because of this, poor people and moral leaders have been calling for a Poor People’s Campaign for a long time.

From Mother’s Day, May 2018, to the Summer Solstice, June 2018, thousands of people in forty states committed themselves to a season of direct action to launch the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. For six consecutive weeks, impacted people, moral leaders and activists gathered in state capitols across the country and in Washington D.C. for nonviolent moral fusion direct action, weekly mass meetings, teach ins, and cultural events. The result was over two hundred actions in forty days with over 5,000 people presenting themselves for nonviolent civil disobedience, tens of thousands witnessing and millions of people following online and through social media—the largest and most expansive wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in 21st-century America.

More than just a series of rallies and actions, a new model of organizing has been catalyzed in this country. From Alaska to Arkansas, the Bronx to the border, people are coming together to organize moral outrage around poverty, racism, ecological devastation and militarism into a transforming force, to turn the poor into agents of change rather than objects of history. In forty states, there are coordinating committees building bridges between communities who have often been pitted against one another. In every region of the country, there are poor people and people of faith and conscience uniting and organizing across lines of race, religion, age, geography, gender and sexuality, political party, and other lines of division.

Before the launch, we were told that our vision was larger than our reach. Friends and allies cautioned that we should focus on a single issue, as if people’s lives could be compartmentalized. While we have heard this same argument for years, politicians and corporations have waged war on voting rights, health care, housing, education, water, land, climate, and communities. Then they’ve taken their bloated military budgets and used our bodies to wage war abroad.

We continue to build a non-violent army of the poor that can do more than react, but can dictate the terms of this country’s future. A new and unsettling force is awakening to revive the heart of democracy in America.

But this is not the time for an incremental campaign; rather, we need one that is willing to confront the rotten structures that perpetuate these injustices and build new and unsettling alliances. In Missouri, hundreds of young Black, White, and Latinx low-wage workers and parents linked up with brigades of octogenarians to stage some of the largest actions in the country. Apache leaders set off from Oak Flats in Arizona and caravanned across the entire nation bringing diverse Indigenous and Native tribes into the Campaign. In California, undocumented folks in Los Angeles connected with homeless organizers in Salinas and policy experts in Sacramento. In Mississippi, families struggling with poverty and the suppression of voting rights rallied together, even when dogs and extremists attempted to intimidate them. In Wisconsin, public school teachers, low-wage workers, undocumented immigrants, and peace activists convened on the state capitol. In North Carolina, families impacted by the lack of Medicaid expansion, coal ash, and homelessness all linked arms to declare “fight poverty, not the poor” together. Nic Smith, a fast-food worker with the Fight for 15 in Virginia declared at a rally on Capitol Hill, “I’m poor, I’m White, and I’m here. This hillbilly is joining other poor people of all colors, all sexualities, all religions, to start the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Our backs are against the wall, and we have no choice but to push.”

At a time when our attention is misdirected by media concerned with tweets and emails, we are finding new ways to break through the distorted moral narrative in this country. We know that the issues of the day are bigger than the dichotomy of Republican versus Democrat, or conservative versus liberal. The moral and spiritual health of this nation depends on our capacity to see deeper and more expansively. We are not aligned with a political party or a single election. There are no politicians who speak on our behalf. Rather, our task is to build the power necessary to hold our political system to genuine account.

Indeed, we are carrying out a phase of deep organizing and power building amongst the poor. We continue to engage in mass voter registration and voter mobilization, not as an end in itself, but to register people for a movement – a movement that votes, sings, educates and takes action together. We are mobilizing in our streets, communities, and at the sites of political and economic power. We continue to build a non-violent army of the poor that can do more than react, but can dictate the terms of this country’s future. A new and unsettling force is awakening to revive the heart of democracy in America.

And now we are launching the Poor People’s Moral Budget: Everybody Has the Right to Live. This Budget flips the question of costs and raises the question of benefits of the Poor People’s Campaign’s Moral Agenda. What we learned in the Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America report, commissioned before we launched the Campaign, is that it is already costing society not to provide health care, to suppress voting rights, and to keep wages low. We know from the Flint water poisoning and the diseases brought about because of the lack of sanitation services in Lowndes County that whole generations of people are having their lives cut short, with youth and children denied living to their full potential because of gross and vast injustice. Research shows that every dollar cut from public education costs society many fold in police, mass incarceration, and social programs in the future. As economist Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out, there is a price to inequality: wealth and income inequality actually hinder the economy.

Therefore, this Budget looks at how much better we could be, as a nation, if we fixed inequality. It declares the moral thing to do is also the economically responsible thing to do. We MUST enact this Budget because we need to invest in the needs of society. We cannot afford NOT TO. We have been investing in killing people; we now must invest in life. We have been investing in systemic racism and voter suppression; we must now invest in expanding democracy. We have been investing in punishing the poor; we must now invest in the welfare of all. We have been investing in the wealthy and corporations; we must now invest in the people who have built up this country. In the words of Rev. Claudia de la Cruz from the Steering Committee of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, “the poor may not run this country, but we make this country run!”

The Poor People’s Moral Budget: Everybody Has the Right to Live proclaims abundance over scarcity, comfort to the weeping, release to those crippled by debt and poverty, and equal protection under the law for absolutely all. The world’s sacred texts are clear on this. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Deuteronomy establishes that a nation that forgives debts, pays people a living wage, prohibits slavery, and organizes society around the needs of the poor will be a prosperous nation. It professes that to honor and love God, nations must love and welcome their immigrant neighbor.

We know that there will continue to be nay-sayers who will say: How will we pay for all of this? Our national debt stands at $20 trillion and is growing. These people say that our nation is on a sure path to fiscal ruin and sooner or later we are going to have to deal with the consequences. We are burdening our children through our irresponsible spending and the only remedy is to curtail spending now.

But this critique does not have the last word. Instead what we have learned from our organizing, as well as from economists and policy-makers, is that it makes sense to invest in areas that make our country stronger: universal health care, infrastructure investment, and tuition-free higher education. In fact, strategically borrowing money to invest in our future is a safe and responsible choice; government borrowing can even make the economy stronger. Also, we want to remind the nation that we have paid for everything from the Bush tax cuts, to the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Trump tax cuts, with deficits. It is about time we put our spending to use — making life better, easing suffering, and investing in our future.

These nay-sayers will declare that the U.S. economy is doing fantastic. The first quarter of 2019 had the fastest annualized growth rate (3.2%) since 2015. The unemployment rate is down to 3.6%, the lowest in nearly 50 years. Average earnings are finally outpacing inflation, with the fastest increases happening at the bottom end of the wage scale. The stock market is hitting record highs. They question us saying, with all these positive signs, the poverty data you report are likely far outdated and you are overstating the need for the generous welfare and job creation programs you’re calling for.

The Poor People’s Moral Budget proclaims abundance over scarcity, comfort to the weeping, release to those crippled by debt and poverty, and equal protection under the law for absolutely all. 

But we must respond with the fact that average hourly pay rose just 6 cents in April 2019 and 4 cents the month before that, after taking 400 years since 1519 to go from zero dollars to $7.25 today. That is not prosperity! In fact, after wages have stagnated for so long, they will need to increase a lot more for working people to get their fair share of economic gains, and so they can meet their needs. At a rate of six cents per month, it would take more than 10 years for today’s minimum wage of $7.25 to reach $15 per hour. Such small pay increases will not chip away at the country’s $1.6 trillion in student debt, and overall consumer debt of nearly $4 trillion — a burden leading one in 15 borrowers to consider suicide. And we must not forget wages have also lagged far behind the increase in corporate profits.

We must also question who benefits from economic growth. The GDP may be increasing, but those gains are not making their way into the hands and pockets of the majority of people in the United States. We do not measure a society by the wealth huge corporations are able to store away to enrich and engorge themselves, but by the life and livelihood of the poorest residents. And with nearly half of the U.S. population experiencing poverty, the economy is not benefiting the people. But it could.

Our critics assert that raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy will be a drag on investment and job creation. They tell us keeping taxes low is the best way to keep our economy humming. But we are called to respond to this critique. The Trump tax cuts have failed to create jobs in meaningful numbers. Instead, corporations have used most of their windfalls to enrich wealthy shareholders and CEOs, blowing a record-setting $1 trillion in stock buybacks that inflate the value of their shares. And we want to remind people of history: in the 1950s and 1960s, corporations contributed as much as three times the share of federal revenues as they do today, with no job- killing effects. The nay-sayers state that wealthy Americans and corporations should not be forced to give up their hard-earned money to taxation. They claim that when necessary, alleviating poverty is best done through private charity.

But we counter that there is no such thing as a self-made person. Every wealthy person benefited from a system of public investment, including infrastructure, educational systems, and the rule of law, without which their wealth would not be possible. Indeed, it is only fair that they contribute back to the system that made their wealth possible. And we question the effectiveness of charity to address significant social problems. While it is a good thing to be generous, in many cases charities actually inscribe the very inequalities they often seek to address. Furthermore, poverty and inequality are created by policy, and must be remedied by policy, not pity.

We also must point out that the legacy of ongoing racism, from slavery through Jim Crow, and to today’s mass incarceration and public disinvestment means that people of color have never had access to the same opportunities as White people, and it is the responsibility of society to be equitable. Basic living standards like adequate housing, health care, education, safe drinking water, and access to work and fair wages are rights, not privileges. A moral society will guarantee these to ALL people.

And there are many nay-sayers who worry about us shifting funds from the military to social programs. They claim that a strong military keeps us safe in a dangerous world. They tell us that the threat of China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, ISIS, and terrorism can only be defeated through maintaining the strongest military force the world has ever seen. That our military guarantees our freedom and fights for the freedom of peoples all over the world.

But we are compelled to reply that our forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the world more dangerous. Our military actions have led to the creation of new terrorist factions, built resentment and fear of the United States, and led to death and suffering for thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

Our spending on war and violence is arresting our ability to provide true security and well-being at home. Since 2001, we have spent $4.9 trillion and counting11 on war in the Middle East with nothing to show for it. That amount would be enough to provide comprehensive health insurance for every uninsured and underinsured American for more than 16 years.12 Our current military spending of $716 billion in 2019 is higher than at the peak of the Vietnam War, the Korean War, or the Reagan buildup of the 1980s.13 Our foreign policy is the most militarized in the world. The United States has 90-95% of the world’s foreign military bases; more than 40% of the world’s nuclear weapons; and spends more on our military than the next seven countries combined. We could cut our military spending to $400 billion or less per year, and still spend more than China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, combined.

But the nay-sayers keep coming! They say: But the jobs – the military provides a proud career path for many Americans, and military contractors provide good jobs in communities across the country.

To this we must respond: for every job created by military investment, more jobs could be created by making that same investment in health care, infrastructure, clean energy, or education. Investment in wind energy could create 21% more jobs compared to military spending, and investment in elementary and secondary education could create 178% more jobs.

Because poverty is caused by structures and immoral policies, it will take moral policies and larger social transformation to lift the load of poverty. 

The Poor People’s Moral Budget counters these and other narratives that the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival confronts. We challenge the idea that poverty is the fault of the poor, rather than structures in society that impoverish and oppress millions. We question the notion that poverty and prosperity are a zero-sum game: we do not need to steal from Peter to pay Paul, or raise taxes on the middle strata in order to pay for programs for the poor; and we disagree outright that there aren’t enough resources to pay for what we need.

Because poverty is caused by structures and immoral policies, it will take moral policies and larger social transformation to lift the load of poverty. In this Budget, we show that if we raise taxes on those who can most afford to pay them, forgive debts of those who can least afford to pay them, and cut funds from the military, we can lift the whole society up, and create community security and community prosperity. This Budget shows that our demands are possible, and that if they are implemented, all of society will prosper. When you lift from the bottom, everyone rises.

We are presenting this Budget now, because we are witnessing a movement swearing that America will be being born anew in this moment, right in the midst of the deferred dreams and hopes of the poor. It has become clear that people are ready to come together and demand truth, love, and justice, and debunk the lies of scarcity and inevitable, unchangeable poverty.

In times such as these, we must confront “states’ rights” arguments that have been used to justify slavery, welfare reform, and other draconian policies. We do not need to lower wages in one region to raise wages in another; we do not need to deny health care to people in one state in order to have welfare programs for people in another state. Extremist politicians do not need to stand in a ditch in order to keep their foot on people’s neck, keeping themselves and everyone in their state down in order to declare some sort of superiority or supremacy.

This Budget is not an endorsement of any specific policy and it is not a policy prescription. It is, instead, an effort to offer a broader, bigger way to imagine society than our current public discourse and framing. The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival will continue to raise the issues, organize people, and build power in order to transform society and enact a moral agenda that puts people first and challenges the intersecting injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative because the 140 million people living an American nightmare are not only the hope of the poor. The least of these, who are, in actuality, most of us, can lead the whole country out of this pain and suffering. The rejected are leading a moral and economic revival.

Further resources:

Download the report: Poor People’s Moral Budget: Everybody Has the Right to Live 

Instead of Death and Destruction, Poor People's Moral Budget Shows What It Looks Like to 'Invest in Life' - an overview by Common Dreams

Original source: Common Dreams

Image credit: Poor People's Campaign/Institute for Policy Studies