Poor People’s campaigners bring call to end poverty to Congress
'I’ve lost my teeth, and before stimulus payments, I had to find food at a food bank I could eat without my teeth. Now I’m back in survivor mode forced to choose between medical care and a meal. We need a Third Reconstruction.' — Joyce Kendrick | Photo via PPC

WASHINGTON—Poor People’s Campaign members and their allies descended on Congress advocating an end to poverty in the U.S. But on that issue and others like workers’ rights and slashing the military budge, they got a mixed reaction.

Several hundred of the campaigners and allies then rallied after a day of lobbying to hear colleagues describe what it’s like to be poor in the richest country in world history—a condition that campaign co-chairs the Revs. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis said shouldn’t exist, and does so because of government legislation and policies.

“We want to build from the bottom and lift from the bottom, because then everybody benefits,” said Theoharis.

The policies include a federal minimum wage that hasn’t risen since 2009, weak labor laws, too much money for the Pentagon at the expense of domestic needs such as housing and education, lack of access to affordable health care—or any at all—and voter repression which muzzles the voices of dissent and disagreement.

The Revs. William Barber (at podium) and Liz Theoharis (to his right) speak outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington. They are joined by several members of Congress. | Photo via PPC

The campaigners presented data showing poverty is endemic because Congress refuses to raise the minimum wage, allows “red” Republican-run states to repress voting rights, trashes worker rights and funds the Pentagon rather than domestic needs, among other reasons.

And, the PPC platform says, lawmakers also cater to the radical right by turning a blind eye to racial discrimination, white nationalism and right-wing religious fanaticism.

Participants wore yellow-on-black T-shirts with data showing high death rates in the U.S., compared to its global peers. The theme of the conference that drew more than 1,000 people the day before was “poverty = death.”

The advocates got a mixed reception, often broken down on party lines, interviews at the June 20 rally, on the second day of the PPC’s conclave. Its theme was reversal of government policies which have harmed the poor and led to persistent 17% poverty in the U.S. for decades.

Los Angeles resident and PPC supporter Rossana Cambron reported she and a colleague either met with staff or dropped off literature at 13 California lawmakers’ offices, including those of two Republicans. The Democrats, especially Rep. Jimmy Gomez, were supportive. The Republican reaction was mixed.

“We stressed the importance of the fact that the richest country in the world, there should not be anyone in poverty,” Cambron said. Even supportive Democrats, though, offered no particular policies for ending it.

Cambron also emphasized the campaign’s support for anti-military efforts, notably House Resolution 77, calling for a ban on nuclear weapons. That measure, by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., is marooned in the Republican-run Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Some were aware of the resolution and were very supportive,” particularly the chief of staff for Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., said Cambron. “Others didn’t commit.”

The Republicans were another matter. The chief of staff for Rep. Mike Garcia “took our material and said ‘Thank you very much,’” Cambron reported.

A positive Democratic response came from aides to Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., reported Bruce Levy, a media coordinator from Long Island. The staffer said his boss agreed with the Poor People’s Campaign’s stands on increasing aid for housing for poor and struggling people, health care for all, on economic policies, and that “there should be a place for everyone in America,” including immigrants.

One problem several campaigners encountered was support for the PPC’s goals but no responses of positive action by the lawmakers themselves. That’s what Joyce Frohn of Oshkosh, Wis., hit when she spoke to aides to progressive Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

“They said we have good ideas, but I’m not sure they can follow through,” Frohn said after showing them a photo of her late son, dead of opioid addiction while in his 30s—and denied health insurance to treat it. Cutting the Pentagon and putting that money into medical care at clinics might have saved his life Frohn said.

“We told her opioid kills, and besides, the Pentagon doesn’t even want the F-38” plane, Frohn said.

Danvel Carson, a PPC district organizer from Maine, said aides to Sen. Angus King, Ind-Maine, “were very supportive” and mentioned progressive tax legislation King and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., are working on.

Staffers for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine—thought to be one of the few remaining moderate Republicans—“heard our message.” Carson added another pointed fact: The potential political clout of poor and low-wealth people. There are 417,000 of them in Maine, Carson reminded the staffers. “We’ll register them to vote.”

Scanning his extensive notes, Wayne Skattum of Wisconsin said the chief of staff for Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher “agreed with us on the problems but disagreed on the solutions.” Added Skattum: “Their ideology believes the free market solves all ills.”

Jim Crosby of Austin, founder of a pro-peace religious group there, drew a tough assignment: Meeting staffers for Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas. McCaul chairs the House Armed Services Committee and the annual defense authorization bill, which his panel handles, just hit the House floor. The lawmaker doesn’t want to cut the Pentagon, but increase it.

Symbolizing their ‘Poverty = Death’ slogan, members of the Poor People’s Campaign stage a die-in outside the Capitol. | Photo via PPC

“If we trimmed the military budget by 10%, it would pay for Medicaid” and housing subsidies nationwide, Crosby said.  The staffers didn’t agree with that, adding that McFaul also stresses the jobs defense contracts bring to the Austin area. But they also said their boss is one of a group of Republicans increasingly skeptical of more military aid for Ukraine in its war with Russia, “so we agree on something.”

Twan Jones of Tulsa said GOP Rep. Kevin Hern first agreed to meet the PPC group, then ducked it, pleading another hearing and leaving them to talk with his aides. He said he would try again, back in Tulsa.

The campaign brought its own platform for eliminating, creating what Barber called “a Third Reconstruction.” Progressive Caucus Co-Chairs Reps. Pramilla Jayapal, D-Wash., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., told the crowd at the rally after the Hill visits they would introduce the platform on June 21 as a non-binding resolution. Lee smiled at a suggestion the caucus hold a special after-hours House session to publicize it, via C-SPAN’s telecasts of House proceedings.

The last day of the three-day conclave saw participants push the PPC platform in meetings with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., other leaders, and Biden White House staffers, though not the president himself. For over a year, PPC has demanded a face-to-face meeting of poor people with Biden, where he could hear their stories.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.