Barber: Rising poverty endangers the whole country
The New Poor Peoples Campaign led by the Rev. William Barber has been demanding a "moral" fight to eradicate poverty. They are also leading efforts to register poor people to vote. | Poor People's Campaign/Twitter

WASHINGTON—Using the phrases of the nation’s founders, the Rev. William Barber II is warning that rising poverty in the U.S. endangers the whole country.

“You cannot have domestic tranquility or promote the general welfare when near 50% of the country is poor and low-wage,” he told a 90-minute National Press Foundation seminar on “Poverty and Inequality 2020.”

“We were at 43% before the pandemic, and that’s going to go up…And 700 people a day die from poverty,” academic studies show, Barber said.

In his wide-ranging discussion on September 2 of the prevalence of poverty, near-poverty and how to cover it, Barber, co-chair of the New Poor People’s Campaign, said both the mass media and policy makers don’t realize, much less talk about, the plight of the poor and how it harms society as a whole.

And not doing so is both a constitutional and a moral mistake, he declared.

The way to discuss poverty, said Barber, is to tell individual stories and use them to illustrate wider points, including counteracting prejudices and stereotypes, such as that most U.S. poor are Black. That’s what the NPPC aims to do with meetings, marches and citizen and voter mobilization nationwide, and with videos it crafted.

He used the example of white Kansas registered nurse Jane Shanklin, in a video the NPPC often airs, of individuals telling their stories of what it’s like to live from hand-to-mouth. Shanklin and her husband live on a farm which has been in the family’s hands for 140 years. Features of their poverty include no potable running water until 1984. They worry each day that the farm will slip into foreclosure.

“We have barely adequate electricity and barely adequate plumbing,” Shanklin added in the video, also available at The closest hospital is a half-hour drive “and that’s if you’re going 70 mph on the interstate.”

“We have to put a face on the facts,” Barber told the Zoom-assembled journalists. “Poverty today is just as ugly as that of plantation capitalism” prior to the U.S. Civil War.

The facts are stark, he said. The U.S. had 140 million poor and low-income people, according to census data the NPPC, which began three years ago, compiled and had experts analyze. The studies are also on the website.

Contrary to myths and stereotypes, there were 66 million poor and low-income adult whites at that time, and 26 million poor and low-income adult Blacks. There are now 38 million poor children “and 62 million people who work every day for less than a living wage,” he said.

“And before COVID [the coronavirus], there were 80 million uninsured and underinsured,” Barber stated. He estimated that with the newly jobless losing company-provided health insurance, the total is now 114 million. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which tracks health issues, says job loss due to the pandemic cost 27 million people, including workers and family members, their health care coverage.

Yet legislation both passed and pending before Congress does little to deal with health care loss or any other facet of poverty, Barber contended. The measures also lacked living wages, paid sick leave and rent, mortgage or utility forgiveness, he said.

Meanwhile, Republicans, including Oval Office occupant Donald Trump, “racialize poverty and talk only about helping the rich,” and the Democrats “talk about entering and keeping people in the middle class.” That’s an implicit criticism of Joe Biden, the party’s presidential nominee.

And while there have been 30 presidential debates, between major-party candidates and before party presidential primaries, in 2016 and 2020, none have been about poverty—and none of the reporters moderating those sessions has raised it, he chided.

So the NPPC is continuing to take the issue of aiding the poor and low-income people nationwide to the streets, even if it must do so via Zoom and videos due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also taking the cause to Congress, again, with four straight virtual “Moral Mondays” focusing on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The senator, who rules the chamber, has pigeonholed HR6800, the House-passed $3 trillion Heroes Act, the latest coronavirus economic aid bill. Barber said it’s good as far as it goes, but, like the $2 trillion Cares Act before it, doesn’t go far enough.

Both measures, Barber declared, gave too much to businesses and banks and not enough help to people who really need it. But McConnell has sat on the Heroes Act for more than 100 days. He plans to offer a stripped-down aid bill when lawmakers return from their latest recess next week.

Estimates of McConnell’s measure range from $500 billion to $1 trillion. Some House bargainers say they could chop HR6800 to $2 trillion, but that it still must include extended jobless benefits for the poor and low-income people and aid to state and local governments, which have seen their revenues tank as demand for their services skyrockets. McConnell adamantly opposes the benefits and the aid.

Barber also made the point the entire nation, not just poor and low-income people, suffers from five interconnected ills the NPPC campaigns to try to get the U.S. to recognize and attack: Racism, poverty, materialism, “the war economy” and “religious nationalism and white nationalism.”

“The transformation of the country can come when we have a moral agenda…including a moral [federal] budget to address these issues seriously,” he said. The NPPC offered one such budget in a congressional briefing earlier this year, after a similar briefing last year, he added.

And to give just one example of how things would have been different, Barber contended that if that budget and agenda, which halves U.S. war spending and diverts the funds to domestic needs, including guaranteed health care coverage for all, had been adopted, the coronavirus pandemic would have had far less of an impact.

But it wasn’t, and so the country is in danger, he said. And that’s not just his opinion, he noted, quoting philosophers and analysts from past decades.

The suffering of the poor and low-income people is also turning them into a political force, and the NPPC is mobilizing them for that, Barber told the journalists. It’s urging them to get active, not just in marches and virtual demonstrations, but in registration and voting.

There are enough poor and low-income people, he said, that if they unite and vote their economic interests, they would determine the outcomes of top races, including the presidential contest between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, in key swing states, such as his home North Carolina.

“In raw numbers, voter suppression may be targeted at Black people, but once they”—the political elite—“get in office, they enact policies that hurt more whites,” he noted.

Rev. William Barber | Mark J. Terrill/AP

The virus helps the poor and low-income people in one way, Barber admitted: “It exposed the fissures and wounds caused by systemic racism” in jobs, voting, housing, education, health care, lack of a $15 minimum wage, criminal justice, worker rights and a wide range of other areas of society, he explained.

“And in the midst of this, you have shootings and lynchings on camera,” referring to the killings of unarmed Blacks by white cops in Minneapolis, Louisville, Ky., Kenosha, Wis., and elsewhere. “When we heard George Floyd” in Minneapolis “say ‘I can’t breathe,’ we all gave a collective gasp.”

If the country doesn’t tackle the problems of the poor and low-income people, rather than, as they told him during the mass meetings, ignoring them, the downtrodden may take matters into their own hands.

Returning to the words of the founders, Barber this time quoted the Declaration of Independence: “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends”—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—“it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new forms of government.”

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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.