A sleeping giant is stirring — and it could transform the political calculus of elections to come
When President Biden first unveiled the Build Back Better agenda, it appeared that this country was on the path to a new war on poverty. In April, he told Congress that "trickle-down economics have never worked" and that it was time to build the economy "from the bottom-up." This came after the first reconciliation bill of the pandemic included the child tax credit that — combined with an expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, and other emergency programs — reduced the poverty rate from 13.9% in 2018 to 7.7% in 2021. (Without such actions, it was estimated that the poverty rate might have risen to 23.1%.) All eyes are now on the future of this Build Back Better plan, whether it will pass and whether it will include paid sick leave, reduced prescription drug prices, expanded child tax credits, expanded earned income tax credits for those without children, universal pre-K, climate resilience and green jobs, and other important domestic policy investments.
For months, the nation has witnessed a debate taking place in Congress over how much to invest in this plan. What hasn't been discussed, however, is the cost of not investing (or not investing sufficiently) in health-care expansion, early childhood education, the care economy, paid sick leave, living-wage jobs, and the like. Similarly missing have been the voices of those affected, especially the 140 million poor and low-income people who have the most to lose if a bold bill is not passed. By now, the originally proposed 10-year, $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, which a majority of Americans support, has been slowly chiseled down to half that size. For that you can largely thank two Democratic senators, West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema, unanimously backed by Donald Trump's Republican Party, which would, of course, cut everything.
Because of them, the "reconciliation" process to pass such a bill has become so crucial and politically charged, given that the same obstructionist Democrats have continued to uphold the Senate filibuster. All year, Manchin, Sinema, and the Republicans have blocked action on urgent issues ranging from climate change and immigration reform to living wages and voting rights. For example, after months of resistance to the For the People Act, a bill that protects and expands voting rights, Manchin forced the Democrats to put forward a watered-down Freedom To Vote Act with the promise that he would get it passed. In late October, though, he failed to win a single Republican vote for the bill and so the largest assault on voting rights since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era continues, state by state, unabated.
President Biden's original Build Back Better plan was successfully caricatured as too big and expensive, even though it represented just 1.2% of gross domestic product over the next decade and Congress had just passed a bipartisan single-year Pentagon budget nearly double the annual cost of BBB. In reality, $3.5 trillion over a decade would be no more than a start on what's actually needed to rescue the economy, genuinely alleviating poverty and human suffering, while making real strides toward addressing the climate crisis. Instead, cuts to, and omissions from, the reconciliation bill will mean nearly two million fewer jobs per year and 37 million children prevented from getting needed aid, while leaving trillions of dollars raked in by the super rich in the pandemic moment untaxed. Perhaps it will also fall disastrously short when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the level necessary on the timetable called for by the world's scientific community.
Much of the recent coverage of these dynamics has focused on what all of this could mean for the Democrats in the 2022 elections (especially given Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe's loss in a state that President Biden won by 10 points). With low approval ratings, striking numbers of retiring members of Congress and increasingly gerrymandered voting maps, as well as outright voter-suppression laws, the Democratic faithful have reason to be worried. Still, what's missing from such discussions is how bad things already are for tens of millions of Americans and just how much worse they could get without far bolder government action. It's true that the 2022 elections could resemble the 2010 midterm elections when Republicans broke President Obama's grip on Congress, winning control of the House of Representatives, but too few observers are grappling with the possibility that 2022 could also reproduce conditions of a sort not experienced since the Great Recession.
As our second pandemic-winter approaches, there are many signs of an economy entering crisis. Economists are warning that despite an employment bump thanks to direct government intervention, we may already be entering a recession that could, sooner or later, prove at least as severe as the Great Recession of 2008. The expectations of everyday Americans certainly seem to reflect this simmering possibility. Consumer confidence has dropped to the second lowest level since 2011 and holiday spending among low-income Americans is expected to fall 22% from last year. (The 11.5% of all shoppers who say they won't spend anything at all on gifts or services this holiday is the highest in a decade.)
As has been true throughout the pandemic, millions of people abandoned by the government will do whatever they can to provide for themselves and their communities. They will try to care for one another, share what they have, and come together through mutual-aid networks. Their resources alone, however, are anything but adequate. Instead, as conditions potentially worsen, such survival struggles should be seen as beachheads when it comes to organizing a largely untapped base of people who need to be awakened politically if any kind of lasting change is to be realized. These millions of poor and low-income Americans will be critical in creating the kind of broad movement able to make, as Martin Luther King once put it, "the power structure say yes when they really may be desirous of saying no."
The Greatest Threat or Our Best Hope?
Keep in mind that the survival struggles of the poor and dispossessed have long been both a spark and a cornerstone for social, political, and economic change in ways seldom grasped in this country. This was true in pre-Civil War America, when hundreds of thousands of enslaved people smuggled themselves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, forcing the nation to confront the horrors of slavery in person and igniting a movement to end it. It was no less true in the 1930s, when the hungry and out-of-work began organizing unemployment councils and tenant-farmer unions before President Franklin Roosevelt even launched the New Deal. The same could be said of the decades before the Civil Rights Movement, when Black communities began organizing themselves against lynch mobs and other forms of state-sanctioned (or state-complicit) violence.
Another example was the transformative work of the Black Panther Party, whose legacy still impacts our political life, even if the image of the party remains distorted by myths, misrepresentations, and racist fearmongering. This October marked the 55th anniversary of its founding. For many Americans, its enduring image is still of ominous looking men in black berets and leather jackets carrying guns. But most of their time was spent meeting the needs of their community and building a movement that could transform life for poor Black people.
In a recent interview, Fredericka Jones, a Black Panther herself and the widow of the party's co-founder, Huey Newton, explained that among their projects,
"the most famous and most notable would be the free breakfast the Panthers offered to thousands of children in Oakland and other cities, providing basic nutrition for kids from poor families, long before the government took on this responsibility. We knew that children could not learn if they were hungry, but we also had free clinics. We had free clothing. We had a service called SAFE (Seniors Against a Fearful Environment) where we would escort seniors to the bank, or, you know, to do their grocery shopping. We had a free ambulance program in North Carolina. Black people were dying because the ambulance wouldn't even come and pick them up."
Before his murder in 1989, Newton himself characterized their work this way:
"The Black Panther Party was doing what the government should've done. We were providing these basic survival programs, as we called them, for the Black community and oppressed communities, when the government wasn't doing it. The government refused to, so the community loved the Party. And that was not what you saw in the media. You didn't see brothers feeding kids. You saw a picture of a brother who was looking menacing with a gun."
As Newton pointed out, the Panthers bravely stepped into the void left by the government to feed, educate, and care for communities. But they were also clear that their survival programs were not just about meeting immediate needs. For one thing, they purposefully used those programs to highlight the failures of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and the contradictions between America's staggering wealth and its staggering poverty and racism, which existed side by side and yet in separate universes. In those years, the Panthers quite consciously tried to shine a light on the grim paradox of a nation that claimed there was never enough money to fight poverty at home, even as it spent endless billions of dollars fighting a war on the poor in Southeast Asia.
Their programs also gave them a base of operations from which to organize new people into a human-rights movement, which meant that all of their community work would be interwoven with political education, highly visible protest, cultural organizing, and a commitment to sustaining leaders for the long haul. While deeply rooted in poor black urban communities, the Panthers both inspired and linked up to similar efforts by Latino and poor-white organizations.
These were, of course, the most treacherous of waters. At the time, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI listed the Black Panthers and their breakfast program as "the greatest threat to internal security in the country." Government officials recognized that such organizing could potentially catch fire across far wider groups of poor Americans at a moment when the War on Poverty was being dismantled and the age of neoliberal economics was already on the rise. In such a context, the ability of the Panthers to put the abandonment of poor Black people under a spotlight, unite leaders within their community, and develop relationships with other poor people across racial lines seemed like a weapon potentially more powerful than the guns they carried.
I wrote recently about the often-overlooked successes of the National Union of the Homeless, which organized tens of thousands of homeless people across the country in the 1980s and 1990s. Its success came, in part, through lessons its leaders drew from the experiences of the Panthers, something they acknowledged at the time. In fact, they called the key strategic ingredients for their work the "Six Panther Ps" (program, protest, projects of survival, publicity work, political education, and "plans, not personalities"), organizing building blocks that they considered inseparable from one other.
At the time, the Homeless Union opened its own shelters and led takeovers of vacant houses in the possession of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These were their "projects of survival." Through them, they secured housing and other resources for their leaders, loudly called into question why there were more empty houses nationally than homeless people, and forged unlikely alliances and political relationships.
More than 20 years later, homeless leaders have revived the National Union and are now making preparations for a winter organizing offensive on the streets and in encampments, shelters, and vacant homes across the country. As life-saving eviction moratoriums continue to expire nationwide, such projects of survival become shining examples of how poor and low-income people can begin to build a movement to end poverty.
Waking the Sleeping Giant
Last month, the Poor People's Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverand William Barber) released a new report on the unheralded impact of poor and low-income Americans in the 2020 elections. Contrary to the popular belief that poor people don't participate in elections and are apathetic about politics, it shows that poor and low-income voters made up at least 20% of the total electorate in 45 states, and up to 40% of them in nearly all of the battleground states. Although we don't know who those voters cast their ballots for, based on the state numbers it's highly likely that Joe Biden and down-ballot Democrats won a significant percentage of them.
The report also examines the racial composition of those voters in key battleground states, revealing that poor folks turned out across race, including a large percentage of poor-white voters. This is significant, since their overall vote share throws into question the knee-jerk idea that poor white voters are a key part of Donald Trump's base. The data also suggests that it's possible to form multiracial coalitions of poor and low-income voters, if brought together around a political agenda that speaks to their shared needs and concerns.
The most important takeaway from the report: poor and low-income voters are a sleeping giant whose late-night stirrings are already impacting elections and who, if fully awakened, could transform the political calculus of elections to come. The question, then, is how to awaken those millions of suffering, struggling Americans in a way that galvanizes them around a vision of lifting the country from the bottom up, so that everyone — billionaires aside — can rise.
The first part of the answer, I'd suggest, is beginning within poor communities themselves, especially places where people are already taking life-saving action. The other part of the answer is finding new and creative ways to connect the survival strategies and projects of the poor to a wider movement that can move people beyond survival and toward building and wielding political power.
On this topic of power-building, Martin Luther King's words again ring true today. In "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community," he wrote:
"Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strength into compelling power so that government cannot elude our demands. We must develop, from strength, a situation in which the government finds it wise and prudent to collaborate with us."
Yes, it's once again time for poor and low-income people to come together across issues and lines of division, challenging the tired, yet still hegemonic narrative that blames them for their poverty, pits groups of them against each other, and feeds the lie of scarcity. Perhaps the Mass Poor People's and Low-Wage Workers Assembly and Moral March on Washington planned for the nation's capital on June 18, 2022, will signal the building of just such a new political powerhouse before the midterm elections.
Indeed, the response of those elected to serve all the people in a historic hour of need suggests that there is much work still to be done. But if in the months to come, you stop for a moment and feel the earth beneath your feet, you might just sense the rumblings of a giant electorate of poor and low-income agents of social change waking from its slumber.
Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor and the just-published We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People's Campaign. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.
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