The Poor People’s Campaign and a Shift in the Poverty Narrative: “Demanding Reconstruction From the Bottom Up”

“We are demanding Reconstruction from the bottom up,” PPC co-chair Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis told Ms. “Ours is not a movement for poor people, but is a movement led by poor and impacted people.”

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Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis leads a protest against the filibuster in April 2021. (Poor People’s Campaign / Instagram)

It’s called the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (PPC)—and like the similarly named movement started by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1967, today’s PPC is a bold denunciation of poverty, racism and the war economy. But in addition to the “three evils” delineated by King 55 years ago, the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign has added climate change, environmental degradation and religious fundamentalism to its roster of wrongs. What’s more, the fight for expanded and restored voting rights is central to their program.

It’s an ambitious agenda.

“We’re looking for a complete transformation of U.S. society,” PPC co-chair Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis told Ms. “We’re calling it a Third Reconstruction. We do not have scarcity in this country. People throw away food and there are more abandoned houses than there are unhoused people. We’re pushing back at the idea that we have to make choices about what we can provide to people. We’re also asking why it is usually poor women, children and people of color who are asked to compromise or make do with less.”

By the PPC’s count, 140 million U.S. residents—a full third of the eligible electorate—are poor or low-income, hovering at, near or below the 2022 federal poverty guidelines of $13,590 for a single person or $27,750 for a household of four. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in approximately one in nine women and one in seven children living in precarious circumstances, forced to grapple with homelessness, hunger, illness, contaminated water, utility shutoffs or generalized want. Racism, of course, pushes the toll most heavily onto people of color,  with 18 percent of Black and Native American, and 15 percent of Latinx women, living in poverty. 

“We are demanding Reconstruction from the bottom up,” Theoharis said. “Ours is not a movement for poor people, but is a movement led by poor and impacted people.”

We’re pushing back at the idea that we have to make choices about what we can provide to people. We’re also asking why it is usually poor women, children and people of color who are asked to compromise or make do with less.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

The idea of a Third Reconstruction—the first followed the Civil War and the second took place during the civil rights movement of the 20th century—involves a calling out of austerity and intentional neglect. And while the campaign is largely rooted in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, its activism and advocacy extend beyond these bodies to include a cross-section of diverse secular community organizations throughout the country.

Even Congress has taken notice. In May, H.R. 438, Third Reconstruction: Fully Addressing Poverty and Low Wages from the Bottom Up, was introduced in the House of Representatives by Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

“People who are poor are one health care crisis, job loss, storm, or emergency away from economic desperation,” the bill states. The solution? Expanding voting rights, passing comprehensive immigration reform, guaranteeing a living wage to all workers, and ensuring human welfare by redirecting federal expenditures away from carceral and military spending.

Voting rights, Theoharis says, are particularly important.

“At the end of the Selma to Montgomery march, Rev. King gave an uplifting sermon where he talked about how Jim Crow and the attack on voting rights diminish the power of the poor. It’s the same today. The current attack on the electorate, the 2013 gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by Congress, and the voter suppression bills that have already passed in 26 states, are directly linked to poverty,” she said.

“We’ve found that states with the highest levels of voter suppression also have the highest levels of child poverty, the highest levels of adult poverty, and the highest levels of people of color in poverty.” In addition, Theoharis adds, voter suppression makes it easier for people who are eager to enact policies that hurt the poor to be elected. This, she continues, ultimately creates “an impoverished democracy.”

Indeed, the intersection between poverty and ballot access is something that PPC members denounce wherever and whenever they can, not only speaking to members of Congress, but raising their voices in state houses, community centers, union halls, religious institutions and in run-of-the-mill gathering spots. The upshot of this outreach, Theoharis says, has been an opening up of the “political imagination,” causing people to question the inevitability of poverty and the ideologies—many of them promulgated by conservative faith groups—that blame the poor for their penury. 

States with the highest levels of voter suppression also have the highest levels of child poverty, the highest levels of adult poverty, and the highest levels of people of color in poverty.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

June 18, 2022: Moral March on Washington

Changing this—Theoharis calls it “power building for a narrative shift”—will require a tremendous, large-scale effort, which is why the Campaign is organizing a national Moral March on Washington on June 18, 2022, with smaller statewide and local actions—in person and over Zoom—leading up to the assembly.

Kait Ziegler, deputy director of the march—its full name being The Poor People’s and Low Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls—told Ms. that the assembly will not only be an “event,” but will also be a chance for people affected by poverty, racism, weather-related upheaval and discrimination to challenge the “policy violence” they have experienced.  

“We’re shifting both the narrative and the narrator to build power across the states,” Ziegler said. “We want to impact policy and elections, build toward a Third Reconstruction, and create meaningful and impactful social change.” 

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The Mass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly & Moral March on Washington and to the Polls will take place June 18, 2022. (The Poor People’s Campaign)

June 18, she continues, “will be a declaration of our intent to fight for a moral transformation,” led by people who have been deeply impacted by financial inequities—more often than not made worse by COVID—and who have faced, or are facing, housing or food insecurity, lost wages, erratic employment, inaccessible medical care, unequal education, and other types of injustice. “We’re putting our boots on the ground to demand the moral agenda we need,” she said.

Outreach, Ziegler adds, is already underway for what she hopes will be the largest gathering of poor and low-income people in U.S. history. At the same time, she recognizes that this may be a tall order. 

“It’s not an accident that strategies have evolved to divide people, to make poor and low-income people feel that they can’t do anything to change their situations. It’s not an accident that media promote distorted ideas, as if bad personal choices are the sole cause of poverty,” Ziegler said. “The moral strategy and moral agenda of  the Poor People’s Campaign counter these narratives and offer up organizing as a way to create a society that meets human needs. They remind us that another world is possible.” 

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About

Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who writes for Truthout, Lilith Magazine and Blog, the LA Review of Books, Fiction Writers Review, The Indypendent, and The Progressive. She tweets at eleanorjbader.