Maintaining the Vision: A Conversation With the Poor People’s Campaign

Written by Elena Seeley

In 1967, three years after President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists planned a Poor People’s Campaign in Washington D.C. Recognizing the ways that the fight for economic justice touches all races and geographic regions, they intended to bring folks together along socioeconomic lines by marching peacefully and demanding Congress help the poor get jobs as well as better health care, education and housing. Although King was assassinated before the march, thousands gathered in D.C. in 1968 to continue the fight for King’s vision.

Launched fifty years after King announced the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival carries these efforts into the present day. Developed out of organizing across the U.S., the Campaign aims to change the narrative of poverty and to understand how it is intimately interconnected with other systems of oppression.

In April 2018, the Poor People’s Campaign released their audit The Souls of Poor Folk, which examines how conditions of poverty have changed over the last fifty years and dispels myths about poverty in our society. From their organizing, and grounded in empirical evidence detailed in the audit, the Campaign then released a Moral Agenda. A document that articulates the four pillars of their work – systemic racism, poverty and inequality, ecological devastation, and the war economy and militarism – the Agenda provides a series of demands for each pillar as well as the moral justification for their work. Most recently, with the release of the Moral Budget at the Poor People’s Moral Action Congress June 17th-20th, the Campaign has demonstrated that achieving these demands is possible.

Talking about the work of the Poor People’s Campaign, what has changed since 1968 and the recently released Moral Budget is Shailly Gupta Barnes. She is the Campaign Manager for the Poor People’s Campaign, as well as the Policy Director of the Kairos Center.

Q: What is the scope of the Poor Peoples Campaign and where are we today?

A: The Campaign is organized in more than 40 states across the country and for almost all of them, we have these fact sheets we developed out of [The Souls of Poor Folk]. All the fact sheets have the poverty numbers for all the states, numbers on voter suppression, numbers on militarism, numbers on ecological devastation, the number of people who are working for less than $15 an hour, who don’t have health care, who are uninsured. We define poverty using government census data, but we expand it to 200% of the poverty threshold catch everybody living right above the poverty line, but who most likely fall underneath it at some point during the year. We have a range of statistics so every state has standard information.

While this is a National Campaign, it is grounded in local work in dozens of states. We have state-based coordinating committees in more than 40 states in the country and each one of those committees is organizing to build a deep and broad foundation for an actual movement to break through. This local leadership is where the most important relationships are being built: through cultural work, communications outreach, potlucks, study groups and prayer circles, new connections and communities are being formed.

And then all that research and all the engagement we have in our community has helped to inform the demands of the Campaign, our Moral Agenda. And what we’ve done most recently is take that Moral Agenda and ask: we know that people who are poor and struggling – 140 million people by our definition – need all the things that are in our Agenda. Is that actually possible [to attain]? So we’ve come up with a Moral Budget that looks at seven critical areas of our agenda, and it answers, yes, it’s all possible. It’s possible to have health care and education and good jobs and cut back military [spending] to a reasonable number that would still keep us safe, raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations, and spend the money on what we need. [We’ve released] this Moral Budget at our Poor People’sMoral Action Congress in D.C.

Q: What do you hope will come from the release of the Moral Budget? How will this help carry out the demands that the Poor Peoples Campaign defines?

A: When we started this campaign in 2017, one of the motivations behind it was that the issues people are facing are just not at all part of the political narrative of this country. Leading up to the election in 2016, we had 26 national debates from the Democratic and Republican parties. And there was not one hour dedicated to poverty, or voting rights. And so we committed to building something that was going to prevent that from happening again. And we’re hoping the Moral Budget and all the work with the Campaign will change the political narrative in this country and raise the issues that people are actually living with every day.

[This is what] our elected leadership should be taking into account and be held accountable [for]. At our Congress, we’re having a presidential candidates forum, where we’re going to have ten candidates, including all the frontrunners: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders. And they’re going to be asked questions from the hundreds of people there. We’re also having a hearing in front of the House Budget Committee (Hearing 2019-012: Poverty in America: Economic Realities of Struggling Families). And for all of these issues that are in our budget and that are in our demands, we’re really hoping to push out and help frame some of the conversation leading up to [the 2020 election].

Q: You mentioned a narrative around poverty that exists in the U.S. What is that narrative and what would you like to see replace it?

A: There a few narratives that we really want to tackle. One that we’ve been taking on is this idea that poor people are the cause of their own problems. And our challenge should be to fight poverty, not the poor. We’re showing that we’re facing systemic injustices that are caused by real structures of oppression and exclusion. And so, when we talk about having 140 million people who are poor, or just one emergency away from poverty, that’s not due to their individual failures.

One of the other major narratives that we’re taking on is this idea that ‘it’s too big of a problem to take on.’ We have two narratives couched in there. One is that you can’t take all this on; it’s too much. The other is that we don’t have the resources to do this anyway. Our Moral Budget really answers both of these and says yes, you can take them on and in fact, we have to take them on.

One of the problems is that we haven’t been looking at all of these things together. Martin Luther King, back in 1968, talked about a radical redistribution of resources. He wasn’t talking about tinkering with a system that wasn’t working; he was talking about really changing it in a dramatic way. Our budget shows that if you actually seek to realize healthcare, good jobs, education, voting rights, and immigration policy and make sure everyone has water, and food – if you actually want to take all of those on, you also have to address the military and questions of war and peace. We’re seeing that one out of every two federal discretionary dollars goes to the military, and just 15 cents of every dollar goes to anti-poverty spending. [You have to address] tax inequities that continue to exist and worsen the problems that we’re facing. And when you take all of [these things], it’s clear that we have an abundance of resources to direct toward the issues people are facing. It’s the political will that we don’t have to do that.

Q: What does it mean that people have a right to not be poor?

A: I think what we’re seeing today is this division in society among the haves and the have-nots. [There are] the 140 million, who are really struggling every day, and those three people who own half the wealth of this country. And all of this is in the wealthiest country in the world in a time where we can actually meet everyone’s needs. It’s really important to think about everything that we’re fighting for: the right to not be poor in a time of plenty. There’s something fundamentally wrong with poverty and inequality expanding in a time of plenty.

Q: How have things changed in the fight for economic justice since the Poor Peoples Campaign in 1968?

A: Across the four major themes of the Campaign we’ve seen that, in many ways, things have worsened. In 1968, just a few years after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1965, there was this expansion of voting rights. Today, we’re seeing a restriction of voting rights. It’s now almost 25 states that have passed restrictions on voting rights. They were in place in 2016 for that election and they will be in place for this [2020] election. Plus, we have 6 million people who are incarcerated who can’t vote or who have been formerly incarcerated who can’t vote. We’re seeing this massive voter repression going on.

The polarization of wealth and poverty has widened. And that whole middle class that was emerging in the post war period, is under really dire conditions today. The cost of housing, the cost of healthcare, the cost of education have all gone up. Meanwhile job security, where you have a middle-income job that gives you a pension and health care, is all going away. And there’s 60 million people working for less than $15 an hour.

We’re seeing this expansion of homelessness in the country that’s precipitated not just by the housing crisis, but by a crisis of affordable housing. When you don’t have good jobs, or federal funding, and support for affordable housing goes down and you have speculation on the housing market, all of this equates to a crisis of affordable housing. I think the official numbers show about 8 to 10 million people who are homeless or on the brink of homelessness, but that’s really underreporting the crisis that you’re seeing all across this country.

There are 14 million families that can’t afford water because water systems are seeing the lowest federal assistance. And so local water systems either raise the rates themselves, they don’t update their infrastructure which leads to toxins and lead leaching into the water or they seek to privatize their water. And private water systems charge more; that’s been proven in research from Food & Water Watch. So, in many ways, things have gotten worse since 1968.

Q: What are some of the greatest challenges to achieving economic justice and how do other forms of oppression compound these problems?

A: These systems of discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, all of these just make less and less visible the deep-seated problems that people with disabilities, Indigenous and native folks, undocumented people are facing. When you’re living in fear, your tendency is to hide, not stand up and find strength in numbers. And so [this] silencing of people, is a real battle that we have to confront as part of the Campaign. Part of what the Campaign is doing is trying to break the isolation of people and not just elevate their voices, but bring them into communities, where together, we can fight for what is right and what we all deserve.

We recognize that we aren’t just working for a moment, but building a movement, and that takes a vision that requires long-term relationships that can last through good and bad times. This means bringing people together to tell their own stories and listen to others’ stories. We sing together, create together, cry together, learn together and pray together. We try to create spaces for everyone’s gifts and limitations to come through, so we begin to see each other as the complex human beings we are and appreciate how much each of us brings to this work. It’s not easy, but this Campaign shows people how much we have in common and how important it is for us to stand together to get what we need. For many people who have been told their whole lives that they have nothing to offer this world, it is transformative to know: you are what this Campaign is all about and you are not alone.

Q: Where do you draw hope from in your work?

A: It’s not all dire. The promise, we believe, is the fact that thousands of people have joined this campaign. In 2018, we had people all over the country show up in the tens of thousands. People are looking for a bigger way to change this country and they’re finding it not just in this Campaign, but in other efforts as well. We’ve done hearings around the country where people are standing up and finding themselves in communities of struggle and hope and resistance.

My organizational home is the Kairos center. There’s chronological time, which moves horizontally, and Kairos is a break in time. [This] could be seen as a time of crisis, but it’s also an opportunity when really big transformational change can happen. And we’re seeing ourselves in a kairos moment right now. And this campaign, and all the people who are looking to change what’s so deeply wrong, coming together, is a real source of hope and optimism that we see every day, all over this country.  

We continue to be inspired by a lot of the other movements that are going on whether it’s around women’s rights and reproductive rights, LGBTQ justice, immigration, the movement for Black Lives – all of these efforts to come together and see ourselves as part of a community of people is inspiring for us. And it really does keep us keep us moving. It’s a hard time, but people are coming together and we’re going to make big changes.


Born and raised in New York, Elena writes and thinks about about local, national, and global foodscapes and is pursuing an MA in Food Studies.

Kristina Erskine