A New Poor People’s Campaign

By Ginny Cunningham

Beginning on May 13, and continuing through June 21, the Poor People’s Campaign invites participation in a national initiative addressing racism, economic exploitation, war and environmental degradation, and aiming for societal transformation. In over 30 state capitals, including Harrisburg, the campaign encompasses Sunday meetings followed by nonviolent, direct action on Mondays. This beginning phase of the Campaign will culminate on June 23 with a national rally in Washington, DC.  (This series of actions are only the beginning of a multi-year campaign.)

On this 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s March on Washington, two spiritual leaders, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, invite reflection on the injustices of our time and urge us to undertake prophetic action for the common good. The campaign arises, says Joan Brown, OSF, who writes for The Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, “as a clarion call, surfacing from the suffering soul of earth and humanity.”

An Institute for Policy Studies report, “The Souls of Poor Folk,” assesses poverty-related conditions and trends during the past 50 years in the United States (available at, and  supports Campaign initiatives to confront government policy that deepens the chasm between rich and poor and embeds myth and stereotypes in our thinking and behavior.

Most observers of the political scene today recognize a chasm of profound depth. According to another recently publicized Institute for Policy Studies report, the combined wealth of three men—Bill Gates, who founded Microsoft in 1975; Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon in 1994; and investor Warren Buffett — is greater than the total wealth of 50 percent of the U.S. population.

Since the 1970s wages for the bottom 80 percent of workers have stagnated. The cost of housing, health care and education has risen dramatically. Consequently, 2.5 to 3.5 million people are living in shelters, transitional housing centers and tent cities. Teachers are buying classroom supplies and holding down second jobs. Students graduate from college burdened with crippling debt. The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program assists only 23 percent of poor families with children. The Poor People’s Campaign asks us to turn our attention to policies, legislation, myths and stereotypes that have not only allowed this inequity but have enabled it.

Ken Regal, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Just Harvest, works in the trenches of the fight to eliminate hunger, poverty and economic injustice. To hear Regal talk about public policy, legislation, and the path that legislation takes, is to hear the voice of a citizen engaged in a real-time life and death struggle to advance humane legislation. His best hope at this time is to kill in committee two bills that would adversely affect the above. Pennsylvania HB 2138, currently in committee, would add new work requirements to the state’s Medicaid program, which provides life and health-saving insurance coverage for 1.7 million adults, most of whom are working already. HB 1659, which already limits food stamp aid to “able-bodied” adults without dependents to three months, is also in committee, but could be brought to the Senate floor for a vote soon. Both of these bills, Regal says, “are just mean-spirited measures aimed at adding to burdens, building on stereotypes and flying in the face of evidence that these kind of work requirements don’t work.”

Bills such as these shred the food and health-care safety net. One in five U.S. households has no accrued wealth. While a shrinking number of men at the economic summit accrue a greater percentage of the wealth and resources of the nation, taxpayers with stagnant incomes pay billions for budget items such as nuclear submarines that cost $2.6 billion each. Accordingly, 53 cents of every federal discretionary dollar go to military spending and only 15 cents go to anti-poverty programs.

The Poor People’s Campaign advocates for the “fundamental dignity inherent to all humanity,” most notably in this country’s context of an abundance of resources that accrue inequitably to the few.

Of particular local interest is the campaign’s demand for clear air and water, the effects of which are hardly limited to the poor. According to the American Lung Association’s most recent annual report, “State of the Air,” the Pittsburgh metro region ranks As the 10th worst of 201 regions for daily measure of fine particulate pollution.

“Pittsburgh’s Water System Is Why We Shouldn’t Run America Like a Business,” published in November in The Nation, spotlighted the many inadequacies of our water system as well as lead levels exceeding federal standards.

The Campaign, says Joan Brown, “is an intentional reach into the hearts of people troubled in soul, whose very lives are threatened by the current political landscape.” It offers all people of faith and conscience an opportunity “to push beyond apathy, fear, and feeling overwhelmed in order to create a new landscape of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.”

“Not everything that is faced can be changed,” said American novelist and social critic James Baldwin. “But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Link to the Campaign, its vision, principles and demands, as well as the report “The Souls of Poor Folk” at

Ginny Cunningham is a local writer and member of the Thomas Merton Center.

Categories: activism, News, Pittsburgh Area

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