Deep Dive: The U.S. Anti-Poverty and Labor Movement
Dorian Warren: It is a sunny 75-degree day here in Washington, DC. There is joy in the crowd. There's excitement in the crowd.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. You're listening to the voice of Dorian Warren. Of course, as you know, Dorian is co-host of The Takeaway Deep Dives, and in his day job he's co-President of Community Change and co-chair of The Economic Security Project. Dorian was wearing all of these hats back in mid-June, in Downtown Washington, DC.
Dorian Warren: There's actually a sense that people have been waiting for this moment because it's been too long, the last two years in the pandemic, for people to come together to lift their voices around these issues, the issues of poverty and racism, climate change, but with a moral view. This isn't a policy event.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dorian and a couple of intrepid producers from Team Takeaway were present as 1,000s of people came together for a mass demonstration and march along Pennsylvania Avenue. The action was called by the Poor People's Campaign, which describes its work as a national call for moral revival. Before the event took place, I spoke with Bishop William Barber, national co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign. He explained why morality is the organizing principle of their work.
Bishop William Barber: We're saying that is immoral, it's morally indefensible, it's constitutionally inconsistent, it's politically insensitive, and it's economically insane not to address this issue of poverty and low wealth, and it's damaging to the very soul and the prosperity of this country. That's why this gathering is not about people coming in laughing and having a fellowship, we're really calling the nation to repentance by forcing people to see the faces of poor and low-wealth people and to hear the tears and the demands that they have.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In 2020, under the excruciating weight of the pandemic, poverty rates and numbers rose for the first time in five years. There were 3.3 million more people living in poverty in 2020 than there were a year earlier. Poverty rose among white and Hispanic Americans, among children and adults, and even among married couples. All were poorer in 2020 than the year before. For the one in five Black Americans living in poverty, there wasn't even any room for the rate to go higher. Luckily, a package of pandemic-era policies stemmed the rising tide of poverty in 2021. Many of those temporary measures have expired, even as consumer prices continue to rise. All of which makes this the right moment for a deep dive into America's movement to end poverty.
Speaker 1: We must meet in the streets, we must be at the ballot box, we must meet at the political suites of this nation. We have to crawl out from the pulpit and the public square.
Dorian Warren: From where we are standing, I only see literally a sea of people with signs and a range of movement shirts who have all shown up today to basically tell the political elites in this town, in Washington, DC, "We are here. You work for us, and you need to do your jobs."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hey, Dorian. It is so good to have you. Thanks for reporting from the march. It sounds like you had some powerful experiences there.
Dorian Warren: Thanks, Melissa. I'm so glad to be here. The team and I talked to a lot of people during the march.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Listen, I feel like it was important for folks to know that the movement to end poverty, that's the water you swim in every day.
Dorian Warren: That is the case. I think one of the core themes of my work, and this is my work across multiple sectors and multiple fields, has really been a focus on poverty, and the fact that poverty is not an ordained or natural system or condition, but really a system of policy choices. I've always had a deep curiosity about poverty, whether as an academic, an organizer, or a journalist.
Even though we have inherited the relative luxuries of higher education and good wages and homeownership, we are both just one generation away from severe poverty. Now, my grandmother used to say that she didn't grow up poor, she grew up po because she couldn't afford the O-R.
Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: I think the question about who is poor and why people are poor is really important. We live in the United States, the richest country in the history of the world. We have 140 million people who are poor, or one health care crisis, one job loss, one storm, one tornado away from economic ruin.
Dorian Warren: This is the Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis. Along with Bishop Barber, she's a national co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign. She helped us get a sense of poverty in this country.
Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: One of the first misconceptions about who is poor is that people are poor because they're lazy, or they don't want to work or they're having too many kids, but we have 52 million people who work every day in this country who do not make a living wage. More than half of those that are on house in our society work. There's not a county, there's not a city, there's not a town anywhere in these United States where if you're working full time at the federal minimum wage, that you can afford to even rent a two-bedroom apartment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Wait, what?
Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: There's not a town anywhere in these United States at the federal minimum wage that you can afford to even rent a two-bedroom apartment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Come on. Nowhere?
Dorian Warren: Nowhere. Let me show you, Melissa. Go to your search engine and find the National Low Income Housing Coalition report titled Out of Reach.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I got it. This is got it interactive map. I love this. I'm clicking on Arkansas because I know the cost of living in Arkansas is low.
Dorian Warren: What does it tell you?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yo, Dorian, this is bananas. Minimum wage in Arkansas is $11 an hour. Apparently, at this current minimum wage, you'd have to work 53 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment, and 43 hours to afford even a single bedroom.
Dorian Warren: Melissa, you probably should not click on your home state of North Carolina.
Melissa Harris-Perry: No.
Dorian Warren: Yes. You'd have to work 102 hours a week at a minimum wage gig to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I can't even.
Dorian Warren: Understanding this reality, that there's really nowhere, Melissa, nowhere you can live while working full time for minimum wage. This reality helps us understand just how pervasive poverty and economic vulnerability really really is. Here's Reverend Liz Theoharis again.
Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: The reality about poverty in this society is that, again, we live in a country that has almost half of its people that are living in poverty or so close to poverty that they can't afford an emergency. People come in and out of that reality, folks are very vulnerable, and can fall into poverty, can lose that health insurance, can lose that job, can lose their housing really at any moment. one of the things that we're talking about by raising up these 140 million people who are poor and low income is that this is not some small section of society, one grouping of people that live one place in the country. This is an economic condition of life here in the United States.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I keep thinking back to this conversation, Dorian, that you and I had nearly two years ago now with Aisha Nyandoro, the CEO of Springboard to Opportunities. That's the organization that offers no strings attached cash assistance to poor Black mothers living in Mississippi. During our conversation, Aisha asked us a simple question.
Dorian Warren: How much does a gallon of milk cost?
Aisha Nyandoro: No one ever knows how much milk costs. I know if my child needs milk, I go buy the milk, period. The women that I work with can tell you how much milk cost at three different stores.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Realizing I did not readily know the price of milk illustrated just how much economic privilege I have.
Dorian Warren I hear you on this because I know both of our grandmas knew the price of milk, right? By the way, right now, the national average for a gallon of whole milk is $4.33. This gallon of milk question is a good reminder of how poverty is defined. Listen, the federal government determines the national poverty line or threshold. Currently, for a family of four, that poverty line is $26,500 a year. That's $6,625 per person. For an entire year of food, an entire year of housing and of course expenses, that's $18 a day.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Where did that number come from?
Dorian Warren: It's a 55-year-old formula developed by a civil servant, the late Molly Orshansky. Now, Orshansky grew up in poverty and when she started working for the social security administration in the 1940s, she discovered there was no standard definition that allowed the government to define and track the severity of poverty. She developed a formula identifying how much it should cost the feed a family of four, based on average food prices of standard items. She took that and multiplied that number by three, but using a standardized grocery budget to determine poverty is problematic to say the least.
Five decades ago, food was a much bigger part of a household budget. In 1955, when Orshansky was developing this measure, food was roughly one third of a family's budget. Even with inflation, today food is on average about 10% of Americans' personal budget. Whereas the cost of housing, of healthcare, of childcare, of transportation, are all much more consequential than milk. It means that the experience of poverty is even more widespread than the official definition tells us.
Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: The poverty line as it is currently measured is wholly inadequate. Anytime we have policies that are connected to the federal poverty line, they're not looking at the full depth and breadth of who is poor in our society. It's those that are near poverty that are in need of social programs and uplift as well.
Dorian Warren: Want to know what this really looks like?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes.
Dorian Warren: Back to your search engine Melissa, and this time head on over to confrontingpoverty.org.
Melissa: Wow. This is a poverty risk calculator?
Dorian Warren: Exactly. This simulator was developed by Professor Mark Rank at Washington University in St. Louis. Just by inputting five characteristics, age, race, gender, education and marital status, it can tell you just how likely it is that you will experience at least one year of poverty.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let me put this in. Let's try unmarried woman of color, late 30s, who didn't go to college.
Automated voice: A 67.9% risk of poverty in the next 10 years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's try a different one here. Married white man, early 40s, some education beyond high school.
Automated voice: A 7.8% risk of poverty in the next 10 years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm starting to get it. The movement in poverty has some really core challenges here. To start, we have a definition of poverty that is outdated and inadequate for identifying the real scope of the experience. With just a few clicks, it becomes pretty clear that some folks are particularly vulnerable and that vulnerability is attached to some other, let's call them politically salient identities.
Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: When you look at the 140 million people who are poor and low income, we know that more than half of those folk are women and girls identified. About 74 million people. When we look at, for instance who are working low wage jobs, about two thirds of low wage workers are women. Especially women of color, Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian women. The history of patriarchy, of sexism play a huge role in the fact that we have so many people who are and so many women and women identified people, poor and low income.
Same when we look at sexual orientation and sexuality. The greatest number of unhoused youth are folks that are queer and trans and LGBTQ. When we look at gender, when we look at sexual orientation, when we look at gender expression, all of this comes to play in who is poor and why people are poor. Yet it is also the case that people across gender, across sexuality are experiencing poverty in the richest country in the world.
Dorian Warren: Let me add one more layer. Because of the ways that we connect poverty to other stigmatized identities, many of us refuse to think about ourselves as poor. Research shows that Americans overwhelmingly identify themselves as middle class, even when they're not. This is why Reverend Theoharris says that developing a sense of shared identity is part of what the Poor People's Campaign is working to do.
Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: Yet there has been, for decades now, a stigma on people calling themselves poor and on people referring to others as poor and impoverished. What I think we're seeing all across the country in these waves of low wage workers organizing, whether it's with the fight for 15 or organizers and workers at Starbucks or Amazon, whether it's folks that are calling for the human right to healthcare right now in this public health crisis. Whether it's folks that are unhoused and living on the streets and with family. I think we see more and more people putting out there that they're just not making it, that they're poor, that the folks are low income.
How can it be that millionaires and billionaires have made trillions of dollars in the course of a pandemic and millions more families have been thrown and shoved below the poverty lne?
Dorian Warren: The work is not easy, but there was tangible energy in the crowd at last weekend's poor people's March.
Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: On Saturday, June 18th, we had thousands upon thousands. The crowd went back farther than my eyes could see. A diverse grouping of poor and impacted folks and folks from different movements and organizations. What I see is a fusion movement of people who identify as struggling in this society, who are saying, "It doesn't have to be this way. This is not our fault. This is not our doing that. That society has failed for low income people." That we, the rejected, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, are coming together, organizing together and trying to call into this nation's consciousness that people have been hurting our people for far too long.
We're not going to be silent anymore. We're not going to be unheard anymore. We're not going to be unseen anymore. We're going to keep on organizing and building the power to get the policy and structural change that is necessary for our very survival.
Nicki Taylor: I am Nicki Taylor. I'm from Memphis, Tennessee and I'm part of the Memphis Seven.
Dorian Warren: Back in January, Nicki was working as a barista at a Starbucks store near the University of Memphis. As the Martin Luther King Day holiday approached, Nicki and six of her coworkers announced their plans to form a union. Now, their timing paid homage to the legacy of Dr. King, who was assassinated in Memphis in 1968 while helping the city sanitation workers who were locked in a public battle with the city as they tried to unionize. In a 2018 C-SPAN special, historian Ryan Jones described the conditions of Black Memphis sanitation workers.
Ryan Jones: Sanitation workers that were African American only made about a dollar an hour. You could be fired for being late to work for after one minute, you had no pension. You were given no other grievances during this period. You were not able to be a driver on a truck. You were only able to ride in the back of the cab.
Dorian Warren: According to the Washington Post which reported the story back in February, Starbucks said these seven employees had committed significant violations of safety and security policies by remaining in the store after closing for an interview with local media. The company claimed it was those lapses, not the fact that they were trying to organize, that led to their firings. In a statement company spokesperson Reggie Borges told the Post, ''These egregious actions and blatant violations cannot be ignored," but firing workers for union activity is illegal.
The National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating more than 200 violations by Starbucks of labor law, including the case of the Memphis Seven. Let's just say that was not the end of the story for the Memphis Seven.
Nicki Taylor: We have fought against their union blasting to come in and fire me and six of my comrades. The store that they thought was going to lose, baby, we got that union. We won.
Dorian Warren: That's Nicki Taylor speaking at the poor people's March in DC. As you can tell, she's still excited because last month, that Memphis store that fired her in February, it voted eleven to three in favor of unionization. It's one of the more than 150 Starbucks stores across the country where employees have voted to join a union. I caught up with Nicki in DC at the march.
Nikki Taylor: We're here definitely representing Starbucks workers united, but we're also here representing the working class, period. We're here to fight for better rights, for better pay, to be able to have a voice in your workplace. We are from a right-to-work state, which is very double-edged sword.
Dorian Warren: Just for a little context here, there are 27 states that have right-to-work laws, meaning that unions can operate legally, but workers cannot be required to join a union as a condition of employment. Conservative lawmakers describe these laws as protecting workers, while many workers' rights advocates say these rules just make it harder for workers to organize and tip the balance in favor of employers.
Nikki Taylor: That means they can fire you for anything. It's just not fair to people who have to have that job to take care of their children and take care of their bills and things like that. Like I said, we're here fighting for Starbucks workers and Starbucks partners, but we're also here fighting for the working class.
Dorian Warren: She wasn't alone. Starbucks workers from across the country were there to show support.
Maggie Carter: We're all in this fight together. We're here to express our solidarity with the working class across the country and show them that we're fighting to change that diligently, especially in the South. My name is Maggie Carter. I'm from Knoxville, Tennessee, the first store in the south to unionize. We are just so grateful to be here supporting the Memphis Seven and supporting working class across America.
Leila Dalton: I'm Leila Dalton. I'm actually from Phoenix, Arizona, and it's also a right-to-work state. We also have similar difficulties. I'm just here to support the working class, support anyone that is scared to unionize and speak up because they don't know if they're going to get fired.
Dorian Warren: This is about more than just Starbucks. In the last year, corporate giants from Amazon to Trader Joe's, to Apple just last week, have seen workers marshal successful attempts to unionize. This day was about more than even union organizing. The people who came on Saturday were there to address the many interlocking issues of poverty, of inequality, and unfairness.
Paula Becker: Hey, I'm Paula Becker. I'm a 79-year-old grandmother. I'm a retired nurse. I'm here today because we don't take good care of our people, our biggest resource.
Lilly Klacken: My name is Lilly Klacken, I'm a home health aide in New York City. I'm here to support whatever it takes for workers to be fully compensated so that we can properly take care of our families.
Kim Smith: Kim Smith, and I'm here because it's immoral what this country does to poor people. Well, I really believe in the message of the Poor People's Campaign. I think that it's so powerful to unite people behind one common cause that affects us all, unjust structures of institutionalized racism, and sexism, and homophobia. You feel the spirit here. It's infectious and it's beautiful. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else today.
Zorah Ruin: My name is Zorah Ruin, I'm here with the Minnesota Poor People's Campaign.
Dorian Warren: In addition to these voices of workers and people who came from around the country to the march, even folks from the highest ranks of the labor movement showed up as well. Here's Fred Redmond, the newly elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.
Fredrick Redmond: Well, I'm here today because this is where the labor movement is supposed to be. Our commitment is towards social and racial justice, and this movement is about lifting up those who've been disrespected, disinherited, despised. This is about low-wage workers. This is what a labor movement is supposed to be.
Dorian Warren: So often in the town where I now live, Washington, DC, I hear pundits and political consultants and even elected officials in daily conversations maligning ordinary Americans for being impatient, or for believing that complicated issues are simple, or for being so tied to identity politics they're unable to form broader coalitions. As we talk with people throughout the day on Saturday, it was clear that these so-called ordinary Americans had complicated analyses and nuanced proposals to address the multiple interlocking causes of poverty and injustice.
This was an entirely different conversation from the common ones I hear in this town. We talked to Ronald Blount from the Philadelphia Unemployment Project who provides direct assistance to people who have fallen through the cracks of an unemployment system that feels almost deliberate in its mistreatment of people trying to get help.
Ronald Blount: I live in New Jersey but I work in Pennsylvania. What they did was anyone that lived out of the state, they just automatically threw them off. What do you do? You call the phones, you get a constant busy signal. You send an email, you won't get an email back in three to six months. How are folks supposed to live during that period? We have people that's been waiting over a year for their benefits. We've been going to Harrisburg, we take van loads of folks out there, and they talk to their legislators or any legislators that will listen.
A lot of times, not only do they get their own private problem fixed, but anyone that has similar problems, they also get those problems fixed as well. What really impresses me is that folks get their money, and you would think they will just get the money and run, but we get a lot of people, they get their money and they just still want to stay and try to help other people that are stuck in the same situation.
Dorian Warren: Our hearts broke when we talked with a Native American father about why he was there.
Speaker 3: As someone who has lost children to suicide, another son who had difficulties, unresolved grief, dealing with his brother's death. Any drug he could find, just looking at a wall was how he ended in the loneliness of the spirits. This is no life for anyone. There is help out there.
Dorian Warren: His son had recently graduated from law school.
Speaker 3: That is the state of where we are at. My kids and other kids, they deserve a fighting chance, and this country isn't giving it to them. They're cutting their lives short. In the lives of people who have been marginalized, especially during COVID, we can see it. I'm standing here without my children, man. When somebody asks me, "How can I fix it?" My answer is, "Bring them back to me." There's no power on earth can do it. I don't want another dad, another mom to feel the way I feel.
Dorian Warren: Ms. LaTosha Brown from Black Voters Matter echoed that empathy.
Ms. LaTosha Brown: I am here because I believe in us. I believe in us more than I believe in the government. I believe if America is to change or to become what it says it is, then we will have to make it be so. I am here because I'm standing in the spirit of my ancestors who were brought here as enslaved Africans, as we're hear on the weekend of Juneteenth, and that in this moment, that we are asserting our freedom, affirming our humanity, and declaring that we will literally take this land, and this will be a land that is about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people. I am here because Black voters matter.
Dorian Warren: A group of Young Organizers from West Virginia said they were doing it for those who will follow them too.
Speaker 4: The reason why I'm more so involved in it is because I know times are hard on everybody. In particular, things tend to get taken out on the children of these communities. We got to start with and hold ourselves accountable, and make sure that we're doing our part as like adults or up-and-coming adults, and especially getting out and making sure that everyone's voting and/or knows that they have the opportunity to do so is a big part of getting out and doing our part. Getting these people to come out of their houses and actually vote on officials that are representing their values to pull themselves out of those situations that they're in is the key component to actually making changes in our communities.
A lot of them, knowing friends, family members, they don't really tend to like trust it, but if they see like our faces out here, the young people that they know, that relate to it, it pushes them forward to actually start maybe, "Maybe I should get involved. Maybe I should look into it. There's this program out there."
Dorian Warren: Melissa, we're trained to measure the success of a movement by the achievement of tangible short-term policy goals. I say this as both a political scientist and as an organizer. There is no doubt that policy-making matters. I can tell you a simple truism about politics, that policy is about collective choices, and how we make those choices has everything to do with who has power in a democracy. I was reminded last Saturday that organizing is connected to policy, but it's also something unique. Organizing is about finding the strength and the hope and the direction to remain in the long struggle to make the world better than how we found it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Stick with us. We're going to continue our Deep Dive into fair housing right after this short break, and we're going to consider who is still not protected by this federal law. [music]
- Philip Randolph: We had action. We had action in the various areas where the people were. This is the reason why we were able to win.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to the voice of A. Philip Randolph, arguably the most consequential labor organizer of the 20th century. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. I'm here with Dorian Warren and we're taking a deep dive into the movement to end American poverty. Now the history of this movement is long and complex, but it cannot be told without the singular figure of A. Philip Randolph.
Dorian Warren: In 1925, he founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car porters and Maids, creating political and organizing space at the intersection of racial and economic justice.
Melissa Harris-Perry: He wasn't done yet. 20 years later, Randolph first imagined the possibility of a mass march on Washington. Now here's professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad of Harvard university in a biography series episode about Randolph.
Khalil Gibran Muhammadl: A. Philip Randolph is the broker of the March on Washington movement, which is a threat posed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to integrate the defense industries. With a threat of a hundred thousand Black people marching on Washington in 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt preemptively signs executive order 8802, the fair employment practices commission.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Still Randolph was not done. 20 years after effectively pressuring President Roosevelt and securing a ban on discriminatory practices by federal agencies, unions and companies doing war-related work, Randolph again visited the Oval Office. The late Congressman John Lewis tells this story.
John Lewis: A small group of us met with president Kennedy and in that meeting, A. Philip Randolph, this prince of a man, the dean of Black leadership, spoke up and he said in his Barone voice, "Mr. President, the Black masters are restless and were going to march on Washington."
Dorian Warren: Indeed they marched. On August 28th, 1963, the March on Washington brought more than a quarter-million people to Washington DC for the March for Jobs and Freedom. This is important. It's critical to remember that even in the moment we identify most closely with the movement for racial justice and civil rights, organizers and participants alike were putting poverty and economic equality on the table for action.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, taking a cue maybe from his mentor and colleague A. Philip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr became ever more explicit about the ties between economic and racial justice in his later organizing. In 1967 at a staff retreat of the Southern Christian leadership conference, King announced the Poor People's Campaign. He envisioned it as a campaign to demand jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and adult education. This was the work he was doing when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, just five months later.
Dorian Warren: Nearly 60 years after the March on Washington for jobs and freedom, nearly a hundred years after A. Phillip Randolph established The Brotherhood Of Sleeping Car Porters And Maids, it is that unfinished work that brought so many to downtown Washington DC last Saturday.
Justin Blake: My father marched with Martin Luther King three times. My grandfather's a Pullman Porter. Other great grandfather was Tuskegee Airman.
Dorian Warren: This is Justin Blake, the uncle of Jacob Blake whose shooting sparked protest in Wisconsin, protest that a young Kyle Rittenhouse armed with a semi-automatic AR-15 style rifle attended. There, written house fatally shot two people.
Justin Blake: Our family's been fighting for the rights for our people for over a hundred years plus. It ain't going to stop. We're here to represent the Blake family, Families United, which is Breonna Taylor's family, the Floyd families and other families, the Black underground recycling from Chicago. We want to see change. We are the change. We're on a precipice of rolling this country over and opening up to what it actually should be. Not what they talked about, but what it should be. That means African Americans, other minorities, and those who celebrate their sexual orientations in a different way having the same freedoms that they talk about, that our white counterparts are able to have every day they wake up and shower and go out the door.
We must have that same able to walk the streets and hold our head up in the same flavor.
Melissa Harris-Perry: During last month's Poor People's March, Dorian caught up with Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King and the current CEO of the King Center.
Dr. Bernice King: When I am a part of things like this or see and observe things like this, I know that the work that my father began is continuing, that those seeds are sprouting forth. Although we may not see the major progress that people would like to see, these are great efforts and they're going to make a difference. I know people don't believe that, but they are making a difference. They are appealing to the conscience of people and more and more people are being rallied together to connect to this because change only comes with a critical mass of people.
Dorian Warren: Just five years old when her father was assassinated, Bernice King is a student of his work, his philosophy, and his public policy demands.
Dr. Bernice King: My daddy laid it out in '67 when he said, "Look the people who have nothing to lose are those who are impacted by poverty. You can't stop us. You already doing something to us so what else can you really do to us because we are here? We are here for the long haul and the stamina is what's going to be required."
Dorian Warren: One of the demands of the 1963 March on Washington was a $2 an hour minimum wage. Now that's $19 in today's inflation-adjusted dollars and $4 more than the benchmark that advocates and the current administration have championed.
Dr. Bernice King: We're behind, it really maybe should be 20. They can begin to do something.
Dorian Warren: As much as Saturday's event revealed the continuing relevance of Dr. King's work, it also laid bare how painfully slow meaningful progress and poverty has been and the ways that progress leaps forward and then falls back.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's got me thinking about Marion Wright Edelman. In 1967, Marion Wright was just a young attorney working in Mississippi for the NAACP legal defense fund. It was actually she who suggested the Poor People's Campaign to Dr. King. In part, because earlier that year Wright had testified before a Senate committee about President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty and how it was working or not working in Mississippi. She warned about Black land loss, about hunger and about racial terrorism against Black folk who were just exercising their political and civil rights.
Dorian Warren: Of course, Marion Wright Edelman went on to found the Children's Defense Fund in 1973 and led the organization until 2018. CDF has long been at the forefront of the battle against child poverty. At the March last weekend, I talked with its current leader.
Reverend Dr. Starsky Wilson: Reverend Dr. Starsky Wilson. I'm blessed to serve as president and CEO of the children's defense fund. I'm here in solidarity with the Poor People's Campaign and this mass people's movement because the poorest group of Americans is those under the age of 18. At the Children's Defense Fund, we've been working to end child poverty for two generations. Unfortunately, there's still much more work to do. As long as of those 74 million children that are majority Black or brown, one in seven of them lives in poverty, and when we can have a year like last year where we dramatically reduced child poverty by 40%, and then have a January like this one where we let it increase again, then we've got to build power for our policy work. That only happens in solidarity.
Dorian Warren: The policy that Reverend Dr. Wilson is referencing here, the one that lifted millions of children out of poverty in a single year, that was the temporary expansion of the child tax credit which was part of the pandemic era American Rescue Plan. Parents started receiving monthly payments about the $300 per month for young children. It was hugely and immediately successful, especially for half of Black and Latino children who were lifted out of poverty in 2021. Then it was allowed to expire. Reverend Liz Theoharris, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, explained the consequences of that expiration.
Reverend Liz Theoharris: What we also saw was that families, that now a couple months after the child tax credit has not been extended, are half of families that were receiving the child tax credit, are now saying that they don't have enough food. This is in a country that throws out more food than it takes to feed everybody. Yet half of the families who were receiving the child tax credit, including those families that were not falling below the federal poverty line but above it, but still were receiving that child tax credit, are now food insecure and going hungry.
It says something about why we need to change our method of understanding who is poor and measuring who is poor and why we also need to pass permanent longstanding programs and policies that actually address the needs and priorities of poor and low-income people.
President Lyndon Johnson: This administration today here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America.
Melissa Harris-Perry: President Lyndon Johnson's 1964 declaration. It's a common starting point for understanding how America has sought to address poverty. Indeed, one of the ambitious goals of the war on poverty was the elimination of poverty by the country's bicentennial in 1976. We did miss that deadline. We could also tell the story by beginning more than three decades earlier, when President Roosevelt promised a new deal to depression era America.
President Roosevelt: I pledge myself a new deal for the American people.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Both are reasonable points of entry. When we begin the story of anti-poverty work in the Oval Office, we can easily miss most of the sustained struggle for economic justice.
Denise Diaz: There's a bus from Orlando coming up driving, which is not [laughs] a short trip. It's the CNAs. It's the nurses, it's the home care workers. It's all the folks that are taking time out of caring for-- It's who are in the grind work and living paycheck to paycheck, and yet we are the ones that are coming through to make our values a reality. My name is Denise Diaz, and I am the co-executive director of Central Florida Jobs With Justice
Dorian Warren: Central Florida Jobs With Justice is a diverse coalition of labor unions and community-based organizations led by people of color, women, and LGBTQ folk. It's an example of the basic truth that people most affected by problems are also the people capable of creating the most effective solutions for those problems.
Speaker 5: As laborers, as workers, as a parent, as someone who's working-class and growing up in a working-class household, the ability for my parents to be able to provide, take me to the doctor when I'm sick, have conversations about schooled field trips and paying for those things. It's all those things and providing the life that they wanted to provide for me, the best that they could, and still at the end of the day have dignity, dignified.
Dorian Warren: Truly community based solutions emerge in many, many spaces.
Chelsea Higgs Wise: Chelsea Higgs Wise, Richmond, Virginia, Marijuana Justice. Marijuana Justice, Virginia was founded in 2019. Our slogan is, "Repeal, repair, and reparations." We really organized to make a gateway of dismantling the drug war by an equitable legalization in Virginia. Just a little story, they actually voted to not legalize marijuana until 2024. For us, we said that's too long. We have to stop the harm right now and have this conversation going. We kept going all the way to the governor and he amended that bill in 2021 because of our efforts.
Dorian Warren: In the movement against poverty, it's so important to shift the center. Yes, the movement gathered in DC last weekend, but we can't only look to DC to understand what's truly happening around the country to create change. I spoke with one activist organizing in Utah.
Brianna Puga: Hi, my name is Brianna Puga. She, her pronouns. I am an immigrant rights community organizer from Salt Lake City, Utah from an organization Comunidades Unidas, translated to Communities United. It was a 10th year anniversary of DACA, and we heard a lot of narratives of yesterday from our DACA recipients regarding how appreciative and how thankful they are of DACA, but that we need a more permanent solution. DACA, to many folks in my community and, of course around the nation, continue to say that DACA is just a temporary bandaid and we need a permanent solution. Primarily my job is to hear the wants, the needs, the barriers, the struggles from the undocumented community, and try to make as much of an uproar in the state capital.
Dorian Warren: I caught up with Kate Blackford, who was working all the way on the other end of the country as the public policy director of Maine's People's Alliance.
Kate Blackford: Right now, we are really excited to be gearing up for creating a state-paid family and medical leave program. We are also working on how to make sure that people aren't getting discriminated against in their housing. We are working on expanding healthcare.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I think we need to pause here. I'm still processing all these people you connected with at an event about ending poverty. You've got union organizers out of Florida, decriminalization advocates from Virginia, immigration leaders working in Utah, and health and housing advocates in Maine. That is a lot. I have to say, it does shift my thinking a bit about this movement because it's pretty clear that for these folks fighting poverty is taking a lot of different forms on a lot of different fronts.
Dorian Warren: Yes, Melissa. We heard over and over again from Reverend Barber and Reverend Theo Harris that today's anti-poverty movement is a fusion movement, meaning that many people from many different walks of life are organizing around the multiple issues that affect their health and wellbeing. Think reproductive justice, or trans rights, or healthcare, or housing, or childcare, or in a time of voter suppression taking hold in states around the country, the fight for democracy. That fight for democracy, whether the right to peacefully gather and protest at a march in Washington on a lovely Saturday afternoon, or the right to vote in a free and safe election, this is all a part of this anti-poverty fusion movement.
Melissa, in the work I do at Community Change, I get to work with hundreds of grassroots leaders around the country doing the work of democracy all year round. Talking to friends and family and neighbors about the issues in their lives, organizing people to take action, whether in meetings with elected officials or attending a protest, or, yes, showing up to vote.
Speaker 6: Democracy is more than just voting. It's about actually sharing ideas. I think it's the way that we actually build democracy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love this video that Community Change put together to really talk about the work that you all are doing. I've got a question for you, Dorian. Are people tired? This is a lot of work?
Dorian Warren: One of the people we chatted with was Mrs. Viola Washington from New Orleans.
Mrs. Viola Washington: It's important that we come together to fight racism and all the other isms that controls our lives. We're just tired, just tired. I'm older than you guys and I've been doing this for a long time. I'm just sick and tired. I don't want it to take that long before the change and you guys end up being old as me and still tired. You know what I'm saying? We just want young people to join the march. I joined the march in 1968 with Dr. Martin Luther King because I lived in Memphis, Tennessee. I marched with Dr. King, and that was what inspired me to do what I do.
Now I'm the director of the Welfare Rights Organization in New Orleans, Louisiana. It's just been a long fight, but I'm not give it up. We just got to continue to work until we know that you all are doing it when we are not doing it.
Dorian Warren: What Mrs. Washington said is really, really stuck with me because she's been in the movement a long time and she is not giving up. Melissa, she is tired.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I heard that too. I was thinking, we've been talking about the Poor People's Campaign, and we'd be talking about the poor part, the poverty question. The other piece of it is people. This is a campaign, ultimately an effort, a movement across decades to make life better for people living in poverty. It occurs to me, it is the people living in poverty who are also doing this really hard work. It takes a meaningful toll on people.
Dorian Warren: It's exhausting work, it's necessary work. We heard a little bit from former Congressman John Lewis earlier, who always reminded us to make good trouble. These are people who are making good trouble to shift the conversation, to not be silent anymore, and to say that we can actually end poverty in America if we made different choices. That work, that work takes day in and day out conversations and showing up, and it's exhausting. It's exhausting. People are not giving up because all the folks I talked to, Melissa, were so hopeful and that's why they showed up at the march on Saturday.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Look, I take your point and I appreciate you returning us to the late Congressman John Lewis. I'm going to tell a little story here because I was with the late Congressman Lewis in Selma, Alabama on the 50th anniversary of the March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We happened to be standing outside and I asked him, "Congressman Lewis, what do you remember about that day?" Clearly, a question he's been asked many times. Dorian what he said to me was, "I remember that it was cold." I thought about that. I was like, yes, I've seen that image many times of the brutality against a young John Lewis. He was, he was wearing that overcoat.
You can probably picture it in your mind's eye if you've ever seen that image. This was Alabama, it didn't necessarily have to be cold on that spring day, but my goodness, it was such a reminder. John Lewis can seem just like spirit and goodness and voice and intellect, but he was also a body, an actual embodied person. Someone who got cold and someone who, when he was beaten, bled. It was my thinking about the late Congressman Lewis that led me to ask the Bishop William Barber about his own embodied experience of leading the poor People's Campaign. Bishop my friend, are you at all tired or discouraged?
Bishop William Barber: I want to be very real with you. Let me be honest with you Melissa, and your audience. I'm 60 years old, almost. There are days that I get tired of having to fight the things that my mother had to fight. One day I actually was talking to her about this. She said, "I bore you two days after the March on Washington, August 30th, 1963. It's a few days after you were born they blew up four girls in a Birmingham church. I asked the question, 'What have I done? What kind of world have I brought my child into?'" My father was a pastor. My mother was a organist. Then her and my father decided that they would commit themselves to transformation.
She said, "I never thought that my son would have to fight for things that we fought for then. We were fighting to try to make sure you didn't have to." Then she looked at me and she cried that one tear that Black women cry sometimes when they're angry and frustrated and it comes out of one eye. She looked at me and said, "You better fight. You better fight." Whatever tiredness I had, that went away. I battle extreme arthritis, but I go into these communities like the Bronx and Appalachia and down in Arizona with the Apache people that are suffering on federal lands and in Texas at the border and hear about all these places.
I see people who are much in situations worse than me. They're saying, "Reverend Barber, we won't be silent anymore. We can't stop." That buoys us, that strengthens us, gives us the courage and the fortitude. Then, Melissa, there's one more thing I want to share with your audience because it might help somebody. During this COVID, one day I got really Howard Thurman, and I was really musing because I was really struggling with why was I still alive? What I mean by that is I had one family in our church that lost 12 family members across the nation.
There's a young lady in our movement, she lost 25 family members in a 30-mile radius in Mississippi, mainly because of the gross inequities, in healthcare in Mississippi. I just asked the question, "Why am I still alive?" I have immune deficiencies. I know that if I had gotten COVID without a vaccination, I could be gone. A few days later, I'm part Pentecostal, the spirit said to me, "Wrong question." The question is never, why are you still alive? Because the day you were born, people died. You faced death, seen and unseen, throughout life. All of people have." All of us live six minutes away from death, because if anybody loses breath for six minutes, most time, that's it.
"The question is, what are you going to do with the breath you have left? Whether it's six minutes, six hours, six weeks, six days, six months, six years, or 60 years. What are you going to do?" I decided with some others that breath is too valuable a commodity to waste it lying, to waste it being hateful, to waste it on injustice, to waste it on being unmerciful. If I've got some breath, until I don't have anymore, I'm going to join it with other people to create a mighty wind of transformation, to breathe some more justice, some more love, some more hope, some more truth into this democracy, into this world until I take my breath. I'm very serious about that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dorian, as always, thank you so much for Deep Diving here on The Takeaway, and a special thanks to you for being out there in the field with mic in hand.
Dorian Warren: Always a pleasure, Melissa. I think we better give some major love to Takeaway senior producer, Shanta Covington and Takeaway digital editor Zach Bynum for being out there in the field with me. Without them, this could not have been possible.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hey folks, next week we are Deep Diving all week. We're revisiting some of our biggest topics with some very smart people. We're talking death penalty, fair housing, water rights, sex work, and more. It's going to be a big week and don't miss it. As always, let us know what you think at 877-869-8253.
Dorian Warren: Thanks so much for listening. I'm Dorian Warren.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway.
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