Last fall, I attended a high-energy mass meeting for the new Poor People’s Campaign. Part of a 15-state tour, the Los Angeles event rallied a racially mixed and enthusiastic crowd from the city’s many activist organizations to unite in their work against racism, war, poverty and ecological devastation.
This spring marks the 50th anniversary of the original Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final initiative before his assassination. With nation-wide action scheduled for May 14, a new generation of activists is taking up his banner, under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. William Barber and his co-chair, Dr. Liz Theoharis. Clearly well aware of historical precedents, Barber drinks deeply from the springs of his forbears in the struggle for justice and equity for communities of color. In the present moment, the struggle extends to all Americans, regardless of race, who are rapidly falling behind in the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in this country. The enthusiastic crowds at the mass meetings last fall suggested that Barber and his team are connecting with deeply held sentiments across the nation.
When Barber came on stage in Los Angeles, I thought of Jesus’ question for followers of John the Baptist, who had sent his disciples to find out if Jesus was really going to save the people from Roman oppression: “What did you go to the desert to see? A reed swaying in the wind? A man dressed in fine clothing? Look, those who wear elegant clothing and luxury are to be found in palaces” (Luke 7: 24-25).
Jesus affirms John’s provocative preaching in the desert, but he doesn’t really satisfy the curiosity, either about himself or about John’s suitability for the enormous task of “saving” a nation that is reeling under the demands of Rome’s colonial occupation. I read the classical David-and-Goliath dilemma in both Jesus’ words and John’s investigation: What can one or two men possibly do in the face of such an implacable oppressor?
It struck me that Barber really is a David confronting a giant. And although we know that diminutive Davids have slain a few Goliaths in this world, victory is never a foregone conclusion.
To me, this small new movement can be compared to the global community’s efforts to eradicate poverty. As with that effort, the Poor People’s Campaign must not only speak truth to power but also engage those with the power to make significant change.
The very idea of mass structural poverty is out of joint with the current prevailing sensibility of democracy in America. This is especially apparent to a visitor, say, from Kenya, like me.
The day I moved to Pasadena, I came across a man pushing a bicycle precariously laden with household items while walking to my residence in a middle-income neighborhood. A mattress, a bed frame, pans and pots, clothes. I thought, “I didn’t know they have boda boda here!”
A boda boda is a bicycle haphazardly converted into a cart, pushed by the fellow you ask to carry your oversized luggage from one bus stop to the next in the city, or through the open-air market in rural towns. The boda boda pusher is poor, yet unlike the homeless man I encountered in Pasadena, he and others like him will often board up with relatives in cramped quarters in low-income settlements that are derogatorily referred to as slums.
For all their distaste, slums, especially because of the communitarian ethos around which they are formed, offer the bare minimum of shelter to the urban poorest of the poor in developing countries. America does not have this sort of provision. Not only is the cost of rent and land prohibitive, but building codes and above all the sensibilities of most Americans hinder the kind of improvisation that allows poor people to make the most of their situation in other parts of the world.
So here you see the homeless everywhere: rag-tag tents under a highway bridge, public parks, church grounds, behind grocery stores, roadsides, bus stops. And the recent presidential race helped raise awareness of the extent of poverty and dilapidated housing in rural America.
Housing and homelessness are only the obvious face of the complexity that has bred the catalogue of problems that make Barber break out into a sweat in “moral revival” meetings. In the face of such overwhelming odds, it’s difficult to imagine what one man, his co-chair and their earnest followers can actually accomplish.
According to Giving USA, Americans contributed an estimated $380 billion to charity in 2016. Yet some observers point out that this generosity represents only a small percentage of the actual giving potential of the American public, and most Americans are reluctant to address the underlying causes of structural poverty. Despite the protections and services implemented as part of the New Deal in the 1930s and the Great Society in the 1960s, the official poverty rate in the United States remains at nearly 13 percent. While many of the policies from these eras (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security) have survived, federal support for grand schemes to address poverty has waned since the 1980s.
I want to believe that folks involved in the current Poor People’s Campaign are “out in the desert” to hear the new prophet, William Barber, because there is an awareness that the piecemeal generosity of the checkbook is not cutting it. If Americans are looking for effective and lasting solutions, what can be learned from the campaign against global poverty?
In the year 2000, world leaders from 191 countries, under the auspices of United Nations, committed to “spare no effort to free fellow humanity from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty.” This campaign was translated into eight measures that became known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), with 2015 as the deadline for achieving these goals.
The declaration in 2000 was a decade in the making. More than a thousand faith-based organizations, non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations campaigned to place the problem of global poverty on the conscience of global leaders who had capacity and the resources to act in concert. And once they inspired the global powers to act, these smaller groups did not put down their tools. They especially played a significant role in holding both global players and themselves accountable. Inspired by the vision of the MDGs, many churches and universities also worked to mobilize their young people to become familiar with global poverty through volunteer trips abroad.
As in all human endeavors, the global campaign against poverty has its lights and shadows, of which pundits and naysayers have written plenty. But according to a UN Report in 2015, the campaign helped to lift more than a billion people out of extreme poverty. One of the signs of this success is a growing youth bulge across Africa and other formerly impoverished regions. Child mortality rates have dropped drastically; literacy rates are at an all-time high in most parts of Africa, and five billion people have reached at least the first rung of economic development, one step above extreme poverty. Nearly six billion people now live in countries where life expectancy has increased. Although inequality remains a problem, the incidence of extreme poverty is shrinking, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the world’s population.
To be sure, the campaign did not achieve all the goals, which is why at the conclusion of the MDGs, the international community adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. Poverty is like a hydra-headed monster; as soon as you resolve one aspect of the problem, a bunch of unfamiliar problems and unintended consequences emerge to afflict the poor all over again. Even if one may critique the MDGs, this much remains true: Many millions of lives were positively affected when world leaders made common cause in the fight against structural global poverty.
The Poor People’s Campaign is a movement in formation, currently mobilizing toward an array of activities this spring. If an essential ingredient of the movement is compassion driven by empathy, solidarity and faith, Americans do not lack in these virtues. That is why William Barber’s events pack out.
But if there is to be a real impact on the structural causes of poverty in American society, the Poor People’s Campaign must mobilize not just the grassroots but also those vested with legal-bureaucratic, corporate and federal power to pursue deep and lasting reforms. In other words, there must be something like the effort that led to the MDGs (and now the SDGs) in America if there is to be any hope for real change. There is a collective will for positive social change in America; whether there is a political way to realize that aspiration is another story.
Wanjiru Gitau is a visiting scholar with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.