On December 4, 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. announced plans for a Poor People’s Campaign to organize toward transformative actions to end poverty, racism, and militarism in America. At that time, the nation was deeply divided, particularly by the issues of racial justice and the Vietnam War. And yet even after Dr. King’s assassination in April 1968, this multiracial mobilization of the poor went forward, mobilizing caravans that converged in Washington, D.C. to erect a shanty town on the National Mall that came to be known as “Resurrection City.” The Poor People’s Campaign culminated in a Solidarity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom involving more than 50,000 people on June 19, 1968.
While this effort was undercut by King’s assassination, two prominent faith leaders — the Rev. Liz Theoharis and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II — are launching a new multi-issue, multi-racial Poor People’s Campaign to recapture the spirit of that 1968 campaign.
Over the past 50 years, social movements have continued the struggle against poverty and the interrelated issues of the war economy and militarism, racism, and ecological devastation. They have won some gains, but even the handful of select indicators in this report make clear that we are still living in a system that serves a tiny minority at the expense of the rest of us. And while the poor, women, and people of color are hardest hit, these problems afflict our entire nation. Most poor and low-income Americans are white, and our middle class is rapidly shrinking as more and more of our country’s abundant wealth flows to the top 1 percent. It is in all of our interest to recapture what Dr. King called the “revolutionary spirit” needed to solve these systemic problems.
By the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign, the civil rights movement had achieved several milestones for racial equality. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signaled major progress in ending overt racism in public policy. Racist public discourse had also become less socially acceptable. And yet a new, more subtle form of racism emerged.
Political tactics aimed at stirring up white resentment and fear of people of color persisted in the form of code words like “welfare queen” and racial stereotypes like the notorious “Willie Horton” ads of the 1988 presidential campaign. These tactics helped build support for underground hate groups and also for public policies that embedded racial bias in U.S. institutions, cementing racial gaps in a wide range of areas.
In 2016, the “new racism” began to look increasingly like the “old racism.” Racist campaign rhetoric emboldened white supremacists who took to the streets brandishing Nazi symbols and glorifying the pro-slavery Confederacy. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the number of U.S.-based hate groups had increased from 892 in 2015 to 917. By August 2017, a Pew Research Center poll found that 58 percent of all U.S. adults saw racism as a “big problem,” up from 41 percent in September 1995. Among blacks, the figure was 81 percent, significantly higher than the 44 percent who held this view in 2009.
The Institute for Policy Studies has kindly offered a then-and-now sneak peek into its preliminary report on where Poor People’s Campaign issues stand.
More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, people of color still face a broad range of attacks on their voting rights, including racist gerrymandering and redistricting, felony disenfranchisement, and a variety of laws designed to make it harder to vote.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 23 states have adopted various forms of voter suppression laws since 2010, including 10 with more restrictive voter ID laws (including six with strict photo ID requirements), seven with laws making it harder to register, six with reduced early voting days and hours, and three that made it harder to restore voting rights for people with past criminal convictions.
In May 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the racially discriminatory intent of voter suppression laws when it refused to revive a North Carolina election law that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Court of Appeals had found to “target African Africans with almost surgical precision.” The court found that the following parts of the North Carolina law disproportionately affected African Americans: shortening early voting from 17 days to 10 days, voter ID requirements, elimination of same-day registration and preregistration of some teenagers, and a ban on counting votes cast in the wrong precinct.
These findings were consistent with a University of California San Diego study that looked at the most common voter suppression tactic — voter ID laws — and found that they doubled the turnout gap between whites and Latinos in the general elections, and almost doubled the white-black turnout gap in primary elections. And as the map below reveals, voter suppression often goes hand in hand with economic suppression. Thirteen states that passed voter suppression laws also opted not to accept expanded Medicaid benefits offered under the Affordable Care Act, denying much-needed support to more than a million people of color.
Another extreme form of voter suppression is the imposition of “emergency financial managers” on cities facing financial challenges. In Michigan, for example, governor-appointed managers were in control in 2013 in Detroit, Flint, and four other cities, most of them predominantly African American. Under that state’s law, these unelected emergency managers have sweeping powers, including the authority to dismiss elected officials, scrap labor contracts, sell off public assets, and impose new taxes.
Criminal justice system
In 1968, police officers killed three African American students in what became known as the “Orangeburg Massacre.” The officers were all acquitted. Fifty years later, in spite of an explosion of protests against such injustice in the wake of the 2014 police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, young black males remain nine times more likely to be killed by police officers than other Americans. T
These killings, for which the shooters have rarely been convicted, are just one indicator of the racial bias in the criminal justice system that permeates policies ranging from sentencing and police presence to arrest rates and probation. According to the NAACP, for example, while blacks and whites use drugs at similar rates, the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost six times that of whites. And even though African Americans represent just 12.5 percent of illicit drug users, they make up nearly 30 percent of those arrested for drug offenses. “Tough on crime” politics has led to skyrocketing federal discretionary spending on prisons — $7.5 billion in 2017, a tenfold increase over 1976 — and increased policing of poor communities to fill them. The number of inmates in U.S. state and federal prisons of all races, grew from 187,914 in 1968 to 1,476,847 in 2015. But the incarceration rates for people of color have grown even faster than for whites. In 1978 (the first year for which race data are available) nonwhites made up less than half the prison population. By 2015, they comprised 66 percent.
Education and employment
High incarceration rates, along with racial discrimination in hiring, contribute to African Americans’ disproportionately high unemployment rates. Since 1968, the African American unemployment rate has persistently run about twice as high as the rate for white Americans. And when African Americans lose their jobs, they are more likely to remain out of work for extended periods. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, African Americans made up 26 percent of the long-term unemployed in 2016 (out of work for 27 weeks or more), while making up only about 12 percent of the American labor force.
Educational divides are another factor in race-based economic gaps. In 1968, whites in the 25–29 year age group were nearly three times as likely as blacks to have completed four or more years of college. By 2015, the gap had narrowed, but whites were still more than twice as likely as blacks or Latinos to have this level of education. One major barrier to higher education for many people of color is the skyrocketing cost. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the price tag for attending a four-year college in 2015 (including tuition, room and board, and fees) was $25,409–2.5 times as much as in 1968, adjusted for inflation.
“The real violence in America is starvation, unemployment, slum housing and poor education.” — Coretta Scott King, 1968
Since the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, the number of Americans in poverty has increased by 60 percent to 40.6 million. In 2016, white people made up the largest share of the poor (17.3 million), while the next two largest groups were African Americans (9.2 million) and Latinos (11.1 million).
More than 95 million Americans (nearly 30 percent of the total population) are either in poverty or considered “low-income” (below twice the poverty line), using the Official Poverty Measure. That number rises to 43.5 percent (over 140 million people) when using the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which takes into account federal assistance resources as well as critical out-of-pocket expenses. And so while poverty has always disproportionately affected people of color, children, and women, what Dr. King and other leaders in the Poor People’s Campaign recognized in 1968 remains true today: poverty touches all segments of our population. The current situation is even more disturbing if we look beyond income to indicators of broader well-being, including financial security and debt, access to quality education, affordable housing, public transportation, mental and physical health, and vibrant and safe communities.
While the overall poverty rate for all Americans is about at the same level today, at 12.7 percent, as it was in 1968, “deep poverty,” defined as having income below half the federal poverty level, has risen from 3.7 percent in 1975 (earliest available) to 5.8 percent in 2016. And because our population has added more than 122 million people since 1968, this means that 15 million more people are poor today than they were 50 years ago.
These official poverty rates do not account for the impact of federal assistance programs. President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” programs helped millions of Americans stay out of poverty, but the 1996 “welfare reform” slashed that safety net and key antipoverty programs continue to come under assault in Washington.
The 1996 law replaced a flawed but significantly beneficial cash assistance program, Assistance to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), with a block grant program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) that drastically reduced resources available to families in poverty, imposed unrealistic work requirements, and increased child poverty. Today, TANF provides benefits to only 23 percent of families with children living in poverty, compared to the 68 percent of such families that benefited from AFDC in 1996. In all but three states, TANF benefits have declined since 1996 in real value, with monthly benefits in all 50 states equal to or below two-thirds of the federal poverty line.
Two-thirds of families below the poverty line who are renters receive no housing assistance and the stock of affordable housing has declined by 60 percent since 2010. The largest housing subsidy, the mortgage interest deduction, primarily benefits middle-class homeowners.
Two effective federal programs that have survived are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as “food stamps,” and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). SNAP, which is a means-tested program, benefitted about 20 million children a month in 2016, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The EITC effectively lifted about 6.5 million people out of poverty in 2015, but this credit does nothing to help those without jobs
The poverty gap and the poverty draft
Back at home, some U.S. communities pay a price far higher than the economic cost of the wars. Over the past 50 years, since the first Poor People’s Campaign, disadvantaged communities in our country have suffered a disproportionate share of the nation’s wartime fatalities, while richer — and whiter — communities have been more insulated from the costs of war. The poorest 30 percent of U.S. communities suffered 36 percent of the casualties in the Vietnam War and 38 percent in the Iraq War. The wealthiest 30 percent of U.S. communities had 26 percent of casualties in the Vietnam War and only 23 percent in the Iraq War.
And the ranks of the so-called “all-volunteer military” are still filled by a draft — not a legal draft, as during the Vietnam War, but an economic draft. During the heyday of the Vietnam-era draft, many middle class and wealthy young men were able to defer or avoid military service through access to lawyers, doctors, universities, and other institutions inaccessible to the poor. Today, young men and women are still subject to a draft enforced by poverty, by lack of other jobs, by lack of college opportunities, and by the limited options available in rural areas and small towns. A 2017 study based on Pentagon information on the hometowns of 6,800 U.S. casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through 2016 indicated that 23 percent of the casualties came from small towns and rural areas that together make up only 17 percent of the U.S. population.
Editor Sarah Anderson is the global economy project director at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-editor of Inequality.org. This is an excerpt, but we encourage you to read the full preliminary report and stay tuned for a final report coming soon.
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