We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way. . . and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.
Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1968, three-thousand people set up a protest camp on the Washington Mall to demand economic justice. Those protestors were part of the Poor People’s Campaign, an initiative spearheaded by Martin Luther King, Jr and his colleagues at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to raise awareness about poverty and economic justice in the country.
King and his colleagues had turned their focus to economic justice after recognizing that the approach of demanding civil rights was not adequately addressing the reality of poverty that faced so many African Americans in the late sixties. What they knew was that poverty in this country is not due to laziness or generational neglect or any of the other dozens of clichés that dominate public perceptions of the poor.
Structural Nature of Poverty
The leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign rightly recognized that there were structures in our society that worked to keep people poor. Some of the ways that we have shaped an unjust society include these structures:
- Wage structures that do not pay people a living wage.
- Poverty thresholds that do not adequately measure poverty.
- Biased requirements for business loans, home ownership loans, car loans.
- A lack of affordable housing units or rent or purchase.
The point of highlighting the structural nature of poverty is to help people see that individual poor people can’t do anything about low wages, or poverty thresholds, their inability to get a loan, or their inability to find housing they can afford. No matter how hard they work. While we may never be able to overcome poverty, societies can structure our economies in ways that are more just.
Issues of economic justice had long been key to King’s vision of a just world. In his 1964 Nobel Prize speech he noted, “Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed–not only its symptoms but its basic causes.”
The Biblical Call to Overthrow Poverty
Recognizing that poverty is a result of injustice is as old as the Hebrew bible. In Isaiah 58, as the prophet lays out God’s vision of justice, we hear these words:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Is. 58:6-7)
The vision of justice in the Bible is a vision of a world where those who have share with others and where we work together as a society to break the bonds that hold people in poverty – the bonds of injustice.
In 1968, 12.8% of the population lived in poverty. The protestors who showed up for The Poor People’s Campaign camped out on the Washington Mall for six weeks to raise awareness about the plight of poverty in the U.S.
King was in the midst of organizing the Campaign when he responded to the call of the sanitation workers in Memphis to help out with their campaign. Indeed, he spoke about the sanitation strike as a major part of the Campaign. The sanitation workers strike highlighted both the unjust economic conditions of some of the hardest working laborers in our country as well as the unsafe working conditions threatened the health and safety of poor, working-class people.
A New Poor People’s Campaign
Remarkably, the poverty rate today is virtually the same as it was in 1968. In 2016 (the most recent year data available) stood at 12.7%. Though the incidence of poverty is arguably higher today than it was fifty years ago as economists widely agree that the poverty thresholds, which were established in 1963, should actually be doubled to capture the lived reality of poverty in the U.S.