A campaign to broaden prosperity
2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign. As you may recall, the campaign was conceived by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1967 at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It evolved into a movement to bring together a diverse amalgam of the poor – Whites, Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians – in a common goal of achieving economic equality. King was assassinated the year after the campaign was launched.
We have unfinished business.
I propose that those of us who will be involved in planning, organizing and participating in events commemorating this significant historical milestone start creating a narrative for it now.
Last year we marked the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and we saw what kind of narrative the other side tries to push into the media. Those who oppose continuing progressive policies and programs for ending poverty tried to argue that after 50 years and billions of dollars, poverty is still with us – and the War on Poverty has been lost.
Of course this war has not been lost. The Great Society programs adapted as part of the War on Poverty kept untold more Americans from falling into poverty over the last five decades, and many of the policies and programs were interrupted and terminated due to a lack of political will before they had a chance to succeed.
I’d like to begin by changing the name of the campaign from a Poor People’s Campaign to a Campaign to Broaden Prosperity. This reflects much of what we’ve learned about poverty in the last fifty years. Basically, that poverty is not caused by character flaws, gender or racial inferiority, or lack of initiative. Poverty in a modern economy is due more to the fast pace of technological change and the emergence of vast pools of subsistence wage earners in the global labor market. People, workers, need help adjusting.
We also know now that poor people are not dragging down the economy nor diminishing the nation’s overall economic abundance. America continues to be the wealthiest nation in the world while at the same time it no longer ranks in the top ten among the world’s most prosperous nations. The problem is, clearly, that its wealth is being squandered on a small percentage of its population.
This results in a wide variety of social ills that go along with high poverty rates: illness, crime, violence, and how do you measure the cost of poor children growing up with lives based on what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the wounds of despair and disappointment”. I do not feel qualified to recommend what specific policies and programs should be enacted in order to enhance broadened prosperity. Though I do know that there are many in the movement to revive the Poor People’s campaign who do. I will yield to them and invite them to share their ideas here.
I am a grassroots activist for the poor and homeless in my community. I, and others, work civically so that they are not harassed or criminalized for being homeless, are provided with decent humane shelter, food, and medical care.
On a national level, I contribute my voice to a growing understanding of what poverty really is, and what its actual causes are.
I will tell you what I have learned from experience: that you need to get to know the people you are advocating for. Almost every community in America has poor people, homeless people, or people who are on the brink of becoming homeless. Meet them. And then let their voices and experiences guide your ideas about policies.
I can unequivocally tell you that the poor I know want programs that work more effectively and are easier to navigate. They do not want charity and they especially do not want pity.
What they want is a fair share of the American prosperity that they and their families and friends helped create.
(Author’s note: The Kairos Center, through it Poverty Initiative Programs, will be one of the major hubs for organizing events around commemorating and reviving the Poor People’s Campaign. For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org.)