Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

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

Featured image: Poor People's Campaign by cool revolution is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr

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.

Minority rule: How the Supreme Court upended the lives of millions

Over the past weeks, multiple crises have merged: a crisis of democracy with the most significant attack on voting rights since Reconstruction; a climate crisis with lives and livelihoods upended in the Gulf Coast and the Northeast by extreme weather events and in the West by a stunning fire season; and an economic crisis in which millions are being cut off from Pandemic Unemployment Insurance, even as August job gains proved underwhelming. There's also a crisis taking place in state legislatures with an ongoing attack on women's autonomy over our own bodies. The Supreme Court let a law go into effect that makes abortions nearly impossible in Texas and turns its enforcement over to vigilantes. And then, of course, there's the looming eviction crisis that could precipitate the worst housing and homelessness disaster in American history.

Indeed, the Supreme Court's ruling on the Texas abortion ban was hardly its only horrific decision this summer. Its willingness to end a moratorium on evictions instantly put hundreds of thousands of people at risk of eviction, with tens of millions more in danger in the weeks to come. With an unequal economic recovery, surging Covid-19 cases (thanks to the highly infectious Delta variant), and poor and homeless people disproportionately suffering the effects of fires and floods, this decision could truly prove catastrophic. Nor is it the only one likely to impact poor and low-income communities of color drastically. That stacked court, the Trump court (if you want to think of it that way), is offering a remarkably vivid demonstration of just how connected voting rights, women's rights, immigrant rights, and poverty really are.

President Biden critiqued the Supreme Court recently for its ruling on the Texas abortion case. "For the majority to do this without a hearing, without the benefit of an opinion from a court below, and without due consideration of the issues," he said, "insults the rule of law and the rights of all Americans to seek redress from our courts." And as continued injustices, especially from that court's "shadow docket," have come to light, former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, now head of the American Constitution Society, tweeted, "SCOTUS's increasing use of the shadow docket to issue massive legal decisions is yet another reason why Supreme Court reform needs to be taken seriously."

In reality, the Supreme Court is an institution of minority rule. According to Ari Berman, a voting-rights expert and journalist who has tracked that court for years, "A majority of conservative Supreme Court justices were appointed by GOP presidents who initially lost the popular vote and confirmed by senators representing a minority of the population." As he's also pointed out, "No one has benefited more from minority rule — and done more to ensure it — than Mitch McConnell."

After all, McConnell blocked President Obama's choice for the Supreme Court on the flimsy pretext that it was too close to an election, only to ram through Donald Trump's pick just eight days before the 2020 election when 65 million votes had already been cast. What this amounts to is simple enough: a Supreme Court that doesn't represent the opinions or values of the majority of Americans.

As a biblical scholar and Christian pastor, I find the words of the Bible particularly relevant in a moment like this. Proverbs 22 reads, "Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case."

In these ever-less United States, of course, it's not only the Supreme Court that doesn't respect the rights of the poor. Consider housing and the lower courts. In recent studies of landlord-tenant court cases in states across the country, landlords typically won 95% of eviction cases in Oklahoma and Hawaii and, in 2017, 99.7% percent of those in Kansas City. According to the ACLU, "Eviction proceedings historically have been unfair and imbalanced. In the courts, the odds are stacked against tenants: 90% of landlords are represented by legal counsel in evictions, but fewer than 10% of tenants have representation."

Eviction in a Pandemic

Recently, as Ivana Saric pointed out at Axios, a new report from Goldman Sachs predicted significant hardship because of the way the Supreme Court upended the moratorium on evictions. As she wrote, "Roughly 2.5 million to 3.5 million American households are behind on their rents… They owe landlords between $12 billion and $17 billion… Evictions are likely to be 'particularly pronounced in the cities hardest hit' by Covid-19 because they have stronger apartment rental markets."

Even more dire, reports CNBC, "The coronavirus pandemic could result in some 28 million Americans being evicted… By comparison, 10 million people lost their homes in the Great Recession." These predictions come, in part, from Emily Benfer, the chair of the American Bar Association's Task Force Committee on Eviction and co-creator with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University of the Covid-19 Housing Policy Scorecard. As she points out, "We have never seen this extent of eviction in such a truncated amount of time in our history."

Add to that something else: this eviction crisis is happening at a moment when there's already an existing population of 8 to 11 million homeless Americans who have only been thrown into a deeper set of crises during this seemingly never-ending pandemic. Although some homeless families received relief during the pandemic, homeless assistance funding was based on a count of only half a million homeless Americans and so, was woefully inadequate. Worse yet, sweeps and evictions of homeless encampments continued even during this crisis, while the limited protections won by housing activists — including, in some places, hotel rooms for those previously living on the street or in shelters — have, in many cases, been rolled back.

To put the eviction moratorium in perspective: Initially, it was instituted as part of the CARES Act that Congress passed in March 2020. Although limited in its reach and scope, it did indeed protect hundreds of thousands of people from homelessness at a moment when, in some places, landlords were flocking to eviction court in the middle of a pandemic to get rid of tenants. The CARES moratorium expired in July 2020. That September, in the absence of any further Congressional action, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stepped in to extend the moratorium to December 31st as a public-health measure to prevent an even greater spread of the virus. Then, in January of this year, the moratorium was extended by the new Congress until July when the CDC again intervened to extend it through October 3rd at least in areas where pandemic cases were high.

Many are familiar with the stand Congresswoman Cori Bush took in early August when the congressional moratorium expired. As someone who had experienced homelessness herself, she camped out on the steps of the Capitol to call attention to the looming housing disaster. Her actions, combined with powerful organizing by grassroots groups, called attention to the eviction crisis, but more is now needed.

The average household debt burden has only grown during the pandemic and no legislative action has been taken to relieve such a rent or housing crisis. The stimulus payments, unemployment insurance, and an expanded child tax credit were simply not enough. As a result, more than 10 million households are now estimated to be behind on their rent. Rather than bailing out renters and homeowners by canceling such debts or even efficiently distributing the $45 billion in rental assistance that has largely languished in a bureaucratic hell, Congress failed to extend the eviction moratorium, paving the way for disaster.

Homeless, Not Helpless

Over more than 40 years, while a crisis of homelessness has exploded, a narrative has been popularized that sees it largely through stereotypes. For a wealthy elite that's advanced a generation of neoliberal reforms, it's been critical to cast homelessness in this way — as an aberration on the margins of an otherwise healthy society, rather than as a startlingly visible indictment of a political and economic order in which homelessness and poverty are at the very core of society.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, major structural shifts in the global economy were accompanied by deep tax cuts, the deregulation of banking and the financial markets, the privatization of public utilities and services, and anti-labor measures. In the midst of all this, homelessness grew, as the government demolished public housing while investing in private urban development projects that fueled gentrification and pushed poor families from their homes.

Up from the streets and out of the shelters, poor and homeless people began organizing themselves into communities of mutual-aid and solidarity. In just a few years, the National Union of the Homeless (NUH) broke into the national narrative, challenging the prevailing notion that its members were poor and homeless because of bad personal decisions and moral failures in their family lives. Instead, they targeted the systems and structures that produced their poverty.

Recently, images of the flooding of Tompkins Square Park when what was left of Hurricane Ida hit downtown New York City received significant attention. Over the summer, the number of homeless people living in that park increased strikingly and neighbors began organizing mutual-aid projects to help the unhoused. Such conditions and projects of survival connect this particular moment to the past — specifically to a time decades ago when homeless and formerly homeless organizers from Tompkins Square first helped form the National Union of the Homeless. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the NUH would organize 25 chapters in cities across the United States representing thousands of homeless people. Its slogans then included "Tompkins Square Everywhere," "No housing, no peace," and "You only get what you're organized to take" — and they still resonate today.

The NUH was known for coordinating housing takeovers: those lacking housing moved into abandoned, government-owned dwellings in a politicized and organized way. The spectacle of homeless people directly challenging public property in the name of survival was striking. In fact, in the 1980s and 1990s, these bold actions resulted in the union winning the right of the homeless to vote, setting up housing programs run by the un-housed themselves in nearly a dozen cities, and so shifting the national narrative on poverty and homelessness.

In the midst of the present pandemic and the eviction crisis that now goes with it, the National Union of the Homeless is taking to the streets again. Indeed, its leaders know that it will take the concerted action of the poor and dispossessed continually putting pressure on the powers that be for the legislature and courts to do what's right.

After all, history shows that social transformation happens when those most impacted by injustice band together with people from all walks of life and build the political will to push through change. Perhaps this is what Abraham Lincoln meant when he said, "Public sentiment is everything. With it, you can accomplish almost everything. Without it, practically nothing." It's what the Reverend Martin Luther King emphasized in 1968 shortly before his death. "Power for poor people," he said, "will really mean having the ability, the togetherness, the assertiveness and the aggressiveness to make the power structure of this nation say yes when they may be desirous to say no."

How Congress Must Act

I started working with the National Union of the Homeless and other organizations led by the poor in the early 1990s. It was about the time that spell check became commonplace on personal computers. I remember then writing papers and articles on homelessness, which was growing rapidly at the time. But as the word wasn't yet in the spell-check dictionary, my computer tried endlessly to correct me. One reason for that: economic homelessness — people being downsized from their jobs or paid too little to pay their rent — was then a relatively new phenomenon in this country. In the last three decades, however, it's grown so commonplace that most of us consider it both age-old and inevitable.

So, it's worth saying what should be but isn't obvious: that poverty, eviction, and homelessness are not eternal, that life truly does not have to be this way. Although in the recent eviction-moratorium debacle the Supreme Court, Congress, and the White House have all tried to shift the blame elsewhere, solutions do exist to address deep-seated, as well as emergency-induced, poverty and deprivation. After all, the very existence of a moratorium on evictions proves that ending them is possible.

The Supreme Court rationalized its decision by claiming that the CDC had overstepped its authority and that it was up to Congress to resolve the eviction crisis through legislative action. In its majority opinion, the judges highlighted the "irreparable harm" suffered not by the poor but by the association of realtors that brought the case. They wrote, "As harm to the [realtor's association] has increased, the Government's interests [in maintaining the moratorium] have decreased."

Of course, the genuine irreparable harm suffered in this moment by millions of families facing eviction in a country that has more abandoned houses than homeless people should be obvious. At the same time, a court that increasingly denies people the right to vote and women the right to health care and control over their own bodies should be the definition of "harm." A government more interested in placating the real estate industry than ensuring that its people are housed should be challenged.

In fact, at this very moment, grassroots groups have come forward with solutions to just such harm. We would do well to attend to them. They include:

  • Making evictions from any dwelling, including cars, tents, and encampments, illegal.
  • Canceling the housing and rental debt that has been accumulated during the moratorium period.
  • Ending predatory speculation that raises rents and makes housing unaffordable in every state in the country.
  • Ensuring living wages and a guaranteed income so every American can afford a decent place to live.
  • Protecting and expanding voting rights including for the poor, homeless, disabled, and elderly so people have the right to vote officials into office who will represent the interests of the unhoused, the temporarily housed, and those facing evictions.
  • Ending the Senate filibuster that's preventing the passage of bold and visionary policies, including the expansion of health care, the raising of wages, the introduction of new anti-poverty programs, and so much more.

Those facing eviction, those underpaid and excluded, and many of the 140 million people who are poor and low-income can't wait for those in power to act (if they ever do). Grassroots efforts like the National Union of the Homeless, Housing Justice for All, Cancel the Rents, Homes Guarantee, and other networks promoting rent strikes and eviction resistance will continue to organize to ensure that all Americans have a place to live, thrive, and build the sort of society we know is possible.

In early September, the National Union of the Homeless put out a statement for Labor Day in which they wrote:

"Our Union members include autoworkers who spent decades on the assembly lines only to end up in the soup line, who built cars only to end up sleeping in them. Our members include former construction workers and farmworkers who provided real homes and grew food for the world but now can't afford to buy or pay rent in the houses they built or buy the food they harvested…
"We challenge the false narrative, the mythology that we are an 'underclass,' a dredge on society, helpless, deserving only pity or scorn, to be corralled into mass congregant shelters (read: homeless internment camps), and pushed into the 'Homeless Management Information System' just to get a few crumbs at the cost of our dignity and our political rights… We reject the false narrative that our plight is the result of our 'bad choices' when it's really about a system that builds for the rich at the expense of the poor, where everyone who works for a living is only one paycheck, one family medical crisis, one eviction away from becoming homeless… Together we can survive today to build a new, fair, and equitable world tomorrow."

May it be so.

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis

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 soon-to-be-published We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People's Campaign. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.


The chaos we have sown: American history shows eras of democratic expansion — and also backlash

My father, Athan G. Theoharis, passed away on July 3rd. A leading expert on the FBI, he was responsible for exposing the bureau's widespread abuses of power. He was a loyal husband, dedicated father, scholar, civil libertarian, and voting-rights advocate with an indefatigable commitment to defending democracy. He schooled his children (and anyone who would listen, including scholars, journalists, and activists from a striking variety of political perspectives) to understand one thing above all: how hard the powers-that-be will work to maintain that power and how willing they are to subvert democracy in the process. His life is a reminder that much of American politics in 2021 is, in so many ways, nothing new.

He grew up poor in Milwaukee, the son of an undocumented Greek immigrant who ran a diner out of the first floor of his home. He returned to his hometown in 1969 as a professor of American history at Marquette University. There, he would take part in political campaigns and local democratic efforts and, of course, raise my siblings and me. After he retired as a professor — committed as he was to opening up space for new scholars and researchers — he remained involved with the Wisconsin ACLU and its campaigns to protect democracy and civil liberties. He became the chair of the board and (how appropriate given this moment of voter-suppression laws) worked to oppose the 2011 Wisconsin voter ID law, while aiding the recall campaign against then-Governor Scott Walker.

Although it seems long ago, in many ways that battle over democracy in America's Dairyland set the scene for the Trump years and the national crisis unfolding around us now. In 2010, Wisconsin Republicans, fueled in part by a rising Tea Party Movement and having gained control of the state legislature and governorship, immediately passed a host of anti-democratic laws, while instituting regressive economic policies. This in a state that had once been a beacon of American democratic experimentation.

As anyone who visited our family would have learned on a driving tour my parents loved to offer, Milwaukee had a first-class park system because of its (rare) history of socialist mayors. Although Wisconsin was also home to that notorious anti-communist of the 1950s Senator Joseph McCarthy, and also the John Birch Society, it had striking progressive roots. However, in 2011, at a hearing on the state Senate's version of that voter ID law, one political-science expert testified that "this version of the bill is more restrictive than any bill we've had in the past… Indeed, if this bill passes, it would be the most restrictive in the United States."

That same year, a major campaign to recall Governor Walker began, partially in response to an "austerity budget" aimed at poor Wisconsinites. It would slash pensions and health benefits for public-sector workers and impose new statewide restrictions on union collective bargaining. When that budget was first introduced, Democratic legislators — and this should sound familiar, given recent events in Texas — fled the state to stave off a vote in its senate, while thousands of protestors besieged the capitol building in Madison. For a moment, Wisconsin commanded the attention of the nation.

That recall campaign unfolded over 18 long, bitter months, with Walker eventually holding onto his governorship. Mitt Romney, then on the presidential campaign trail, lauded him for his "sound fiscal policies" and swore that his victory over the recall would "echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin." And he was right.

More than just a win for a beleaguered politician, the Wisconsin experience signaled a growing anti-democratic strain within the Republican Party and American politics coupled with an extreme economic ideology that benefited the rich and powerful. Even then — in the years when Donald Trump was no more than a businessman and TV show host — that ideology was already masquerading as populism. And in doing so, it echoed the development of so-called welfare reform more than a decade earlier, when former Governor Tommy Thompson's "Wisconsin model" laid the basis for ending welfare as Americans knew it.

My father watched the fallout from these events with grave concern. For more than 50 years, he had researched and exposed how the FBI's surveillance programs threatened civil liberties and weakened democratic expression. He knew what was possible when the levers of government power were in the wrong hands and recognized the emergence of the attack on democracy earlier than most. He taught us that wherever you were was ground zero when it came to voting rights and, sadly enough, the truth of this has only become clearer since his passing. Indeed, right now, amid a wave of voter suppression laws unseen since Reconstruction and the continued obstructionism in Congress, the fight for democracy is everywhere and, whether we like it or not, we're all on the frontlines now.

A Multi-Racial Democracy from Below

American history is punctuated by eras of dramatic democratic expansion but also of backlash, especially in response to any encouragement of a multiracial electorate coming together to lift society from the bottom up. In the wake of the Civil War, Reconstruction was a first great elaboration of American democracy. To this day, it remains the most radical experiment in popular government since the founding of the republic. After 250 years of slavery, the share of Black men eligible to vote across the South jumped from 0.5% in 1866 to 80.5% just two years later. In many of the former Confederate states, this, in turn, at least briefly inaugurated a sea change in political representation. In 1868, for instance, 33 Black state legislators were elected in Georgia.

Alongside those newly emancipated and enfranchised voters were many poor white sharecroppers and tenant farmers who, in the rubble of the slavocracy, were ready to exercise real political power for the first time. In a number of state legislatures, fusion coalitions of Blacks and poor whites advanced visionary new policies from the expansion of labor and healthcare rights to education reform. The development of public education was particularly significant for the four million Blacks just then emerging from slavery, as well as for poor whites who had been all but barred from school by the former white ruling elite.

If Reconstruction could be called a second American revolution, the Southern aristocracy and the Democratic Party of that era would soon enough set off a vicious counterrevolution, bloody in both word and deed. A violent divide-and-conquer campaign led by informally state-sanctioned paramilitary groups, especially the newly created Ku Klux Klan (headed by a former Confederate general) terrorized Blacks and whites. Meanwhile, those fusion state governments were broken up and, even though the 15th Amendment couldn't be repealed, new voter suppression laws were implemented, including poll taxes, lengthened residency requirements, and literacy tests.

What's often left out of this story is that many of those tactics had first been perfected in the North in response to waves of immigrants from Europe and beyond. Between the Civil War and World War I, 25 million people emigrated to this country. In many Northern states, this rising population of foreign-born, urban poor seemed to threaten the political status quo. As a result, nativist and anti-poor voter suppression laws, including new registration requirements, property stipulations, and voter-roll purges spread widely across the North. For years, white Southern reactionaries studied and borrowed from such anti-democratic trailblazing in states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

Reflecting on this record, historian Gregory Downs has written that "when Americans treat voter disfranchisement as a regional, racial exception, they sustain their faith that the true national story is one of progressive expansion of voter rights. But turn-of-the-20th-century disfranchisement was not a regional or a racial story; it was a national one." Then as now, it was about protecting the power of a class of wealthy, white Americans in the face of an urge from below for a multiracial democracy.

Echoes from that era could be heard half a century later in the reaction of Republicans and Southern Democrats to the Civil Rights Movement. In the South, since Jim Crow voter suppression had disenfranchised entire generations of Blacks, disproportionately living in poverty, civil-rights reforms threatened what some saw as a "natural social order." Elsewhere across the country, fears arose that legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would empower poor people across the board. Two Republican congressmen from Michigan and Indiana, for instance, introduced a sham alternative to it that would have allowed states to use literacy tests in election season, a time-honored proxy for restricting the votes of the poor.

Such extremist politicians typically — and it should still sound all too familiar today — couched their opposition to the Voting Rights Act in terms of ensuring "voter integrity" and preventing "voter fraud." Beneath such rhetoric, of course, lay an underlying fear of what broad democratic participation could mean for their political and economic interests. During his governorship of California in the late 1960s, Ronald Reagan first began connecting mass enfranchisement and welfare with the specter of poor people destroying American democracy. His future staffer Pat Buchanan highlighted a growing consensus in the Republican Party when he said, "The saving grace of the GOP in national elections has been the political apathy, the lethargy, of the welfare class. It simply does not bother to register to vote."

President Reagan's hyper-racialized caricature of the "welfare queen" has endured all these decades later, cementing the lie that the poor don't care about democracy and stoking fears of a changing multiracial electorate. And while it may be true that a sizable portion of eligible poor and low-income voters don't vote, it's not because of indifference. Indeed, a recent report from the Poor People's Campaign, which I co-chair, shows that typical reasons for lower voter participation among the poor are illness, disability, time and transportation issues, and a basic belief that too few politicians speak to their needs, ensuring that their votes simply don't matter. This last point is especially important because, as the voter suppression tactics of the previous century have evolved into present-day full-scale attacks on voting rights, their concerns have proven anything but unfounded.

The Chaos We Have Sown

In 2013, in Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down the Section 5 preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act. That section had placed certain districts with histories of racist voter suppression under federal jurisdiction, requiring them to submit to the Department of Justice any planned changes in their voting laws. Since then, there's been a deluge of voter-suppression laws across the country.

After a multi-racial coalition of voters elected America's first Black president, 2011 stood as the modern watershed for voter suppression with 19 restrictive laws passed in 14 states. (Barack Obama would nevertheless be reelected the next year.) Today, we're at a new low point. Six months into 2021, a total of nearly 400 laws meant to obstruct the right to vote have been introduced across the country. So far, 18 states, ranging from Alabama and Arkansas to Texas, Utah, and Wyoming, have passed 30 of them, including an omnibus bill signed into law in Georgia in March. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, it "targets Black voters with uncanny accuracy."

At this very moment, one major front in the battle over voting rights is still unfolding in Texas. There, the state Senate recently passed a massive "voter integrity" bill that would, among other things, ban 24-hour and drive-through voting, add new ID requirements, and criminalize election workers who don't follow the onerous new rules. The bill would also grant new powers to partisan poll watchers, raising the possibility of far-right militia groups legally monitoring polling stations. Texas House Democrats fled the state before a vote could be introduced and now remain in Washington, D.C., in exile, awaiting the end of the special session called by Republican Governor Greg Abbott and possible federal action.

Those state legislators arrived in D.C. the same day President Biden gave a national address in Philadelphia on voting rights. His rhetoric was certainly impassioned, and he has since affirmed his support for both the For the People Act and for restoring the full power of the Voting Rights Act, which would indeed expand access to the ballot, while placing more political power in the hands of people of color and the poor. And yet he has offered little when it comes to developing an actual strategy for getting that done. Instead, he continues to insist that he is not in favor of ending the filibuster in the Senate, even though it's the chief impediment to federal action on the subject. He argues instead that such a move would only throw Congress "into chaos."

Reverend William Barber, my co-chair in the Poor People's Campaign, recently laid out the hypocrisy of the president's "support" for voting rights, even as he justifies inaction on the filibuster:

"President Biden, I have no doubt you care and desire to do right, but, as a clergy person, let me say pastorally, when you say ending the filibuster will create chaos that obscures the fact that the filibuster is facilitating chaos. The filibuster caused chaos with anti-slavery legislation, labor rights, women's rights, civil rights, voting rights, and it once again is causing policy chaos by allowing a minority to obstruct justice. The filibuster has already been used to stop your goal of $15/hr. living wage. We believe the filibuster should end. But, at the very least, no one should ever say the filibuster is preventing chaos."

As Barber notes, the filibuster is also obstructing urgent policy struggles around better wages and healthcare, immigration reform, and the large-scale infrastructure plan that the Biden administration has worked so hard to create. Action on these issues would dramatically improve the lives of millions of poor and low-income Americans and is precisely what a majority of voters support and extremists are so eager to block through voter suppression. That's why there's been a recent upsurge of grassroots actions meant to connect the fight for democracy, including voting rights, with economic justice and the abolition of the filibuster. This includes a season of non-violent moral direct action, including a March for Democracy and a Rally in Texas organized by the Poor People's Campaign, because its members understand that what's really underway in this country is a struggle between democracy and potential autocracy or, as Martin Luther King once put it, between community and chaos.

Our own choice is the sort of community where everyone has an equal voice in our democracy and, honestly, in that I believe I am simply following in my father's footsteps.

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis Featured image: Voting Rights Act by Victoria Pickering is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr

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. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.

Have we entered America's third era of reconstruction?

West Virginia, a state first established in defiance of slavery, has recently become ground zero in the fight for voting rights. In an early June op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin vowed to maintain the Senate filibuster, while opposing the For the People Act, a bill to expand voting rights. Last week, after mounting pressure and a leaked Zoom recording with billionaire donors, he showed potential willingness to move on the filibuster and proposed a "compromise" on voting rights. Nonetheless, his claim that the filibuster had been critical to protecting the "rights of Democrats in the past" and his pushback on important voting-rights protections requires scrutiny.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

After all, the modern use of the filibuster first emerged in the 1920s and 1930s as a response to civil rights and anti-lynching legislation. In 1949, senator and southern Democrat Richard Russell, then a chief defender of the filibuster, unabashedly explained that "nobody mentions any other legislation in connection with it."

Manchin's apathy toward democracy actively harms millions of West Virginians in a state where 40% of the population is poor or low-income and voter turn-out rates remain dismally low. Indeed, that filibuster potentially stands directly in the way of billions of dollars in infrastructure and job-development funding that would buoy the Mountaineer State, as well as many other states across the country. At the same time, the protection and expansion of voting rights would benefit poor and low-income West Virginians significantly.

The debate on protecting voting rights and on the filibuster in Congress is only part of an assault on democracy underway nationally. Halfway through 2021, the very Republican extremists who continue to cry wolf about a "stolen" presidential election have introduced close to 400 voter suppression bills in 48 states (including West Virginia), 20 of which have already been signed into law. As journalist Ari Berman recently tweeted all too accurately, this wave of reactionary legislation is the "greatest assault on voting rights since the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870s."

When history circles back on itself like this, it's worth paying attention, especially since the years following the Civil War represented the most significant wave of democracy this country had ever seen. For almost a decade during that First Reconstruction, formerly enslaved men and women forged fragile but powerful political coalitions with poor whites across the South, leading state governments to advance the rights of dispossessed millions, while securing key federal legislation and constitutional amendments that would forever change the country.

The racist and violent backlash to Reconstruction was more than a reaction to the enfranchisement of former slaves and the empowerment of propertyless whites. It was a response to the threat a multiracial democracy from below posed to the still all-too-powerful remnants of the southern Slavocracy and the barons of Wall Street some thousand miles to the north. Today, the stirrings of a similarly transformative era are palpable and the growing antidemocratic counterattack suggests that the modern equivalent of those Slavocrats and the billionaire barons of this moment feel it, too.

As inequality and poverty continue to deepen, poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans favors commonsense policies like universal healthcare, wage increases, affordable housing, and voting rights. And from the multiracial Black Lives Matter uprisings last summer, which pulled in tens of millions of Americans, to the historic electorate that voted in the Biden-Harris administration, it may soon be increasingly clear that this majority is willing to act to make its needs and demands the order of the day.

In the wake of that First Reconstruction and what might be called the Second Reconstruction of the Civil Rights era from the 1940s to 1970s, we may now be in the early days of a Third Reconstruction. Still, no one should ignore another reality as well: those who would stop such a moment still wield enormous power and will continue to use every imaginable tool of division and subterfuge, from suppressing the vote and maintaining the filibuster to limiting wages and supporting highly militarized police forces.

The first two Reconstructions have much to teach us about the possibilities and dangers that abound today.

A Tale of Two Reconstructions

The First Reconstruction emerged in the bloody wake of the Civil War and 250 years of slavery. For roughly eight years, 1865-1877, formerly enslaved people were joined by poor white southern farmers who saw that they shared certain political aspirations and economic interests. Within just a few years, such cross-racial alliances controlled state houses in the South, passing some of the most progressive education, civil rights, and labor laws in this country's history.

In several states, new constitutions granted the right to public education (to this day, still not federally enshrined). Such fusion coalitions, often led by the formerly enslaved, knew that their freedom depended on a vibrant democracy, so they expanded access to the ballot. At the federal level, these new Southern governments in conjunction with their Northern counterparts, helped advance the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, later known as the Reconstruction amendments.

For too brief a time, there was a historic redistribution of political and economic power that offered a glimpse of what true democracy could look like on American soil. But from the start, such a program faced enormous opposition. Not surprisingly, many former Confederates saw Black citizenship, as well as any kind of interracial working-class alliance, as inherently illegitimate. As a result, old slave-holding politicians fought the use of taxes to support public education, especially for Black children, while working ceaselessly to suppress the Black vote.

In the process, violence and terror quickly came into use. It was within the crucible of Reconstruction that the Ku Klux Klan first took shape, with the goal of terrorizing Black and white leaders alike. White-led mob violence and outright race massacres in both the North and South shook this budding interracial democracy to the core and, after the federal government abandoned the effort, white extremists across the South wrested back power. In place of Reconstruction, they formulated a Jim Crow system that would again codify a strict racial hierarchy and stand until the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed deep into the next century.

That Second Reconstruction began quietly in the 1940s, gaining steam and strength in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, it's better known than the first, though its currents are more complex than the conventional narrative suggests. For much of the first half of the twentieth century, community leaders and political organizers, Black and white, in the North and the South, continued to fight for the civil and economic rights that had briefly flourished after the Civil War. Through the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II, Black leaders in particular focused on establishing an expansive vision of human rights amid the squalor of deeply entrenched inequality.

At the same time, using everything from race-baiting to anti-communism, the federal government worked diligently to suppress the very idea that political and civil rights might in any way be linked with economic rights (as physical and sexual violence continued to be directed at Blacks). In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education the Supreme Court declared that segregation in education was unconstitutional, a ruling that helped fuel grassroots efforts to challenge its legitimacy in all public and private institutions. Following that ruling, the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 would prove a catalyst for the continued growth of Black freedom struggles. Soon enough, a massive reconstruction movement arose across the country demanding justice and equality.

That Second Reconstruction ushered in the end of legal segregation and Jim Crow. In its place, major democratic reforms were implemented; voting rights expanded; and, in some Southern states, Black politicians were elected to office for the first time in a century. As with the First Reconstruction, the impact of such breakthroughs were felt not just in the South nor in relation to a narrow set of issues, but by poor and dispossessed people nationwide. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty, creating significant new federal programs of social uplift. Sadly enough, however, by the late 1960s, as ever more government funding and attention was squandered on an increasingly disastrous war in Vietnam, government action still failed to meet the needs of millions of Americans and some of the new anti-poverty programs, starved for funds, began to falter.

Recognizing that this reconstruction moment might be lost, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others called for the launch of the Poor People's Campaign in 1968. Combining the energies of the Black freedom, antiwar, welfare rights, and farm worker movements, the Poor People's Campaign made plans to camp out on the Washington Mall until its demands for social justice were met. That encampment, called Resurrection City, was constructed in the late spring of 1968, just months after King's assassination. Only six weeks later, it would be razed by the police, a sign of the times amid a growing wave of racist and anti-poor actions that had already begun to sweep the nation.

This counterattack on the Second Reconstruction to come would be encoded in politics as the Southern Strategy – a conscious effort by extremist elites in the Republican Party to win back power across the South by rebuilding a regressive form of cross-class white solidarity. Having grasped American history, including the rise and fall of the First Reconstruction era, they knew that controlling the South was key to controlling the country. Using a new vocabulary of racist dog-whistles, they set out to undermine the gains of the previous decade, while rolling back the rights of the poor and people of color. In many ways, half a century later, the United States is still living through the fallout from that moment.

The Stirrings of a Third Reconstruction

In 2013, 17 people were arrested outside the General Assembly building in Raleigh, North Carolina. They were protesting the rise to power of extremists in all three branches of the state's government. The result, in the previous decades, had been a full-spectrum assault on democracy and the rights of everyday North Carolinians, especially the poor and people of color. This had included attacks on public-school funding and public healthcare, as well as immigrant and LGBTQ rights. To tie it all together, the state politicians of that moment had used thinly veiled racist claims of voter fraud (sound familiar?) to pass the worst voter-suppression laws in a generation.

What began as a small action, however, quickly grew into the largest state-government-focused civil-disobedience campaign in American history. The architect of that campaign and the animating visionary for the Third Reconstruction was Reverend William J. Barber II. He and other leaders of what became known as the Forward Together Moral Movement had studied the history of the two Reconstructions in North Carolina and recognized the historic possibilities in their growing movement. Thanks to sustained organizing, they broke through the silos of single-issue politics and so flipped the governor's house and, in the longer run, shifted the balance of power in the state supreme court. In the process, they overturned a monster voter-suppression law that, according to a federal court, targeted African-Americans "with almost surgical precision."

This movement, which I first connected with in 2013, is a shining example of what might be called modern reconstruction politics. The trauma of the 2007-2008 recession and the brief rise of the Occupy movement helped transform a generation who found themselves with worse economic prospects than their parents. Many of them and the generation that followed have joined people from every walk of life to sustain movements ranging from Black Lives Matter and the Poor People's Campaign (of which I'm the co-chair) to Indigenous people's struggles and a rising wave of climate-justice activism on an ever more endangered planet.

These intersecting movements are, notably enough, generally multiracial in character and often led by poor people. Better yet, as the polls tell us, their calls for sweeping reforms have been backed by popular opinion — and even have growing support in Congress. In late May, for instance, Democratic congressional representatives Barbara Lee and Pramila Jayapal (backed by other representatives) sponsored a congressional resolution aptly entitled "Third Reconstruction: Fully Addressing Poverty and Low Wages From the Bottom Up." It called on the nation to raise the minimum wage, enact comprehensive and just immigration reform, and expand voting rights.

The First and Second Reconstructions both emerged during moments of significant political turmoil and socioeconomic change, similar to what we're living through today. Hourly wages for most workers have essentially stagnated since the 1970s, while income and wealth inequality have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, technological innovation has made increasing numbers of people superfluous to the economy, while producing a historic shift in downward mobility for middle-income earners. In the richest country in world history, poverty, joblessness, and homelessness have become permanent fixtures of American life, with at least 140 million people living in poverty, often just a $400 emergency away from utter ruin.

They represent a sleeping giant that, amid much upheaval, may be waking up to the injustice of voter suppression, the denial of healthcare, the suppression of wages, the state-sanctioned murder of people of color and the poor, the poisoning of America's waters and air, and so much more.

When I think about the possibilities of this social awakening, I'm reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., just months before he launched the Poor People's Campaign and was then murdered: "There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life."

Exactly such a force is possible today. Onwards to a Third Reconstruction!

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.

The fierce prophetic vision of poor women

One hundred and fifty years ago, in the bloody wake of the Civil War, the abolitionist Julia Ward Howe issued a "Mother's Day Proclamation." The world, she wrote, could no longer bear such terrible violence and death. She called on women across the country to "rise up through the ashes and devastation" and come together in the cause of peace. Forty years later, her daughter Anna Jarvis created Mother's Day.

In the midst of another national trauma, with the latest Mother's Day just past, perhaps it's an auspicious moment to celebrate not just mothers, but women more generally. I think about countless women like my mom (who died nearly a year ago) enduring tremendous adversity to make ends meet and care for those they love. During the pandemic, after all, women have found themselves on the front lines in so many ways. They make up more than 75% of healthcare workers, almost 80% of frontline social workers, and more than 70% of government and community-based service workers. Add in one more thing: women have been hit first and worst by the economic crisis that Covid-19 set off, as female-dominated industries like retail, leisure, and hospitality were decimated.

The situation continues to be so dire for women that economists have even begun to talk about a "shecession." A recent poll found that a quarter of women claimed they were financially worse off a year into the pandemic. In March, the percentage of women out of, or looking for, work was the highest it's been since December 1988. For the first time in American history, job and income losses in an economic crisis have been worse for women than for men. And it's been poorer women and women of color who have been hit hardest of all.

But the true depth of this crisis can't be measured by job numbers and frontline risks alone. In an intensified yet eerily familiar way, this past year-plus has laid bare the pressures, burdens, and violence that women, especially poor women and women of color, face every day. It's highlighted the disproportionate, unpaid labor they shoulder at home; the role they take in raising and educating children while caring for the sick and elderly; and the paternalistic, often punitive, presence of welfare and law enforcement agencies like Child Protective Services, the police, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in their lives.

In such a moment, we should all think about the opening words of Howe's 150-year-old proclamation: "Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!"

Of Water and Tears

Before slavery was outlawed in America, formerly enslaved abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass insisted that those who feel the first pains of injustice must be the first to strike out against it. That was the very kind of "baptism" Howe invoked in her proclamation — an invitation to initiate women into struggles born from those already so much a part of their lives. Today, her invocation of "water and tears" should resonate for millions. Among them, it may have no greater relevance than for the women of the Michigan cities of Flint and Detroit.

April 25th marked the seventh anniversary of the ongoing water crisis in Flint. Many will remember the breaking news coverage about the lead poisoning of that city's water system at the end of 2015. Others will recall President Barack Obama's "mission accomplished" moment when he visited Flint and drank a cup of newly filtered tap water. But for the many women, poor and largely of color, who have become Flint's "water protectors," the crisis isn't over. Even now, new water lines are still needed in some neighborhoods. A $641 million class-action settlement fund from lawsuits against the state of Michigan has indeed recently been set up for Flint residents, particularly impacted children, to receive help. However, community leaders are continuing to organize, because unfortunately many of the families and children who need the resources the most will be left out since the settlement requires documentation, which the poorest and most vulnerable families will struggle to obtain.

It's important to note that the struggle of these warriors for clean water did not begin when the first cameras arrived in Flint to record the disaster. It began when, in 2011, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed an unelected emergency manager to rule the city with near-dictatorial powers.

A similar emergency manager had already imposed mass water shutoffs in Detroit after that city went bankrupt, while the one in Flint switched from piping in well-treated water from Detroit to pumping water directly out of the Flint River, which had been an unofficial waste-disposal site for local industry for decades. It was seen as a cost-saving measure for that financially strapped city until a new water-piping system could be built. Warnings and safety precautions were ignored when it came to lead and other pollutants ending up in local drinking water, a decision that would, in the end, condemn Flint's inhabitants to years of mass lead poisoning. Because of that same tainted water, more than 100 people would also die of Legionnaires' disease.

We're talking about a place that had once been a beacon of industry and prosperity, a city now struggling under the weight of deindustrialization and growing poverty. Claire McClinton, a long-time Flint community organizer and leader, summed up the crisis this way: "They could not have taken our water away without taking our democracy first."

Her words are informed as much by history as by contemporary events. McClinton and many of the other women fighting for clean water had already spent decades organizing for a broad range of welfare, labor, and economic rights. She and many of those other Michigan water warriors are my political mothers and mentors. No wonder I once again celebrated them (as well as my own mom) this Mother's Day.

Even earlier, in 1996, during the heyday of neoliberal austerity politics, welfare-rights and labor activists like those in Flint and Detroit witnessed Democratic President Bill Clinton eliminate the entitlement of millions to welfare and better living standards of millions by signing into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Among its other "reforms," it replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a program which provided desperately needy children with welfare payments, with the far more restrictive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. They watched as government agencies kicked staggering numbers of people off life-saving federal assistance programs and continued to forcibly rip kids away from parents who, in terrible economic circumstances, could no longer afford to feed and house their own families adequately.

As the situation in Flint made clear, the historic fight for welfare was integrally connected to the ongoing fight for clean and affordable water, as well as, in our present moment in thousands of communities, the fight for living wages and voting rights. And don't forget the need for a revival of an increasingly impoverished, not to say (in the wake of Donald Trump) ravaged, democracy.

Indeed, all these issues raise questions about the role the government should play in caring for people and addressing fundamental fractures in society like poverty, hunger, and sickness, which always disproportionately hurt women. All of these are, then — or at least should be — non-negotiable issues for women today.

Lifting from the Bottom Up

The first 100 days of the administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have clearly represented a surprising pivot from neoliberalism's halcyon days under Clinton. For an anti-poverty organizer like myself, schooled in the politics of the 1990s and early 2000s, it was startling, even moving, to watch Biden address a joint session of Congress and announce that "trickle-down economics has never worked. It's time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle-out… We have a real chance to root out systemic racism that plagues American life… A chance to deliver real equity. Good jobs and good schools. Affordable housing. Clear air and clean water."

Without a doubt, one of the administration's biggest achievements so far is the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a $1.9-trillion relief package that has already begun to inject desperately needed resources into a needy America. Included in it was the Child Tax Credit (CTC), a potentially breakthrough anti-poverty program.

The CTC could be transformative for millions of poor families, especially if it were to be expanded and made permanent. For some observers, it may seem like a good idea conceived by policy experts for a critical but passing moment of national need. Dig a little deeper, though, and what you'll find is that the CTC is an inheritance from the efforts of poor women over these last decades, especially those of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) in the 1960s and 1970s, some of whom are still organizing in Flint and Detroit.

The NWRO was a national organization of poor women on welfare, Black and white alike, at a time when more than eight million single women and their children received regular but meager benefits through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. NWRO leaders, however, saw such welfare not as a form of charity, but as a right. They insisted on the dignity of all work, whether in traditional jobs or at home, and the need to compensate all women for their labor. They championed a welfare system that wouldn't separate the "deserving" from "undeserving" poor but instead put agency and power in the hands of welfare recipients rather than bureaucrats and social workers.

As it grew, their organizing coalesced around a demand for a guaranteed adequate annual income — and, in the late 1960s, they would prove a force to be reckoned with, recruiting leaders like Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to their cause. Their political imaginations were decades ahead of their time and their moral clarity on the position of poor women in this society prophetically advanced.

In 1972, Johnnie Tillmon, the first chairwoman of the NWRO, published a paradigm-shifting essay entitled "Welfare is a Women's Issue," in which she wrote:

"I'm a woman. I'm a black woman. I'm a poor woman. I'm a fat woman. I'm a middle-aged woman. And I'm on welfare. In this country, if you're any of those things you count less as a human being. If you're all of those things, you don't count at all."

Nearly half a century later, as we pause to honor mothers, isn't it time to recognize the ways women like Johnnie Tillmon have for all too long been discarded by this society? Isn't it time to be honest about those men — and women — who have risen to great heights, only to wield power in ways that hurt women? As for me, I can't forget the moment when, during the fight over ARPA, Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema, a Democrat, made a show of walking past the Senate clerk's desk, giving an exaggerated thumbs down to an amendment to the bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

When a reporter from the Huffington Post inquired about her vote, the senator's spokesperson claimed that it was sexist to comment on a female politician's "body language" or "physical demeanor." Much more harmful to women, though, is the disproportionate impact of poverty and low wages on their families and them.

Sinema represents a state in which nearly three million people are poor or one emergency away from economic ruin, a majority of them women. It's troubling, then, that a woman who has reportedly experienced poverty herself (although questions have been raised about whether she has exaggerated how poor she was) would deny living wages to poor and low-income women in her state and across the country. Among the Democrats in the Senate joining Sinema in dissent were New Hampshire's Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen, as well as five male senators. (All seven of them are millionaires.) Their actions are a stark reminder that women need genuine representation in Congress, as well as policies that lift us all.

Sadly, that "Nay" vote against including a minimum wage raise in the Covid-19 relief package hurt women, people of color, and the poor. Altogether, 59% of low-wage workers are women and nearly 40% of all Black workers labor for less than $15 an hour. Yes, during the pandemic, we've begun calling many low-wage workers "essential." It turns out, though, that they aren't essential enough to be guaranteed wages that might help them afford the essentials of life.

Now, Sinema is also at the center of another legislative battle — about the future of the filibuster, a racist relic of the slavery and then Jim Crow eras that still has democracy in chains. It continues to prove a powerful cudgel for extremists in the Republican Party who are increasingly unable to win a governing majority fairly. It's especially useful for those determined to stonewall on a host of policies that disproportionately impact women, from wage increases to welfare programs and reproductive rights. Sadly, despite claiming to care about sexism and the fortunes of women, Sinema continues to help hold the Senate hostage to score political points.

Arise Women of This Day

As a white woman — a mother, a pastor, a feminist, an activist, a teacher, and the co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival — I feel obliged to challenge Senator Sinema: for her performance on the Senate floor, for her stance against living wages and for the filibuster, and for the long-term impact her actions will have on the 140 million poor and low-income people in this country, especially the 74 million poor and low-income women.

I also feel honored and obliged to uphold the work of women like Claire McClinton, Johnnie Tillmon, and Julia Ward Howe who have allowed us glimpses of what a government and economy that served and empowered all women could look like and who have highlighted the prophetic leadership of women impacted by the social injustices of their day. Now is the time to raise wages, ensure vaccine equity, and so much more. Now is the time to lift from the bottom so that all of society can rise, as poor people have been saying for years and President Biden has recently reaffirmed.

Tillmon couldn't have made it clearer for us. "Women's liberation," she said so many years ago, "is simple. No woman in this country can feel dignified, no woman can be liberated, until all women get off their knees."

Today, let's hear her and arise together! In truth, every day should be Mother's Day.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the 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.

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis

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. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.

The American death spiral

Fifty-four years ago, standing at the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his now-famous "Beyond Vietnam" sermon. For the first time in public, he expressed in vehement terms his opposition to the American war in Vietnam. He saw clearly that a foreign policy defined by aggression hurt the poor and dispossessed across the planet. But it did more than that. It also drained this country of its moral vitality and the financial resources needed to fight poverty at home. On that early spring day, exactly one year before his assassination in 1968, Dr. King warned that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death," a statement that should ring some bells in April 2021.

In his sermon, Dr. King openly wrestled with a thorny problem: how to advance nonviolent struggle among a generation of Black youth whose government had delivered little but pain and empty promises. He told the parishioners of Riverside Church that his years of work, both in the South and the North, had opened his eyes to why, as a practitioner of nonviolence, he had to speak out against violence everywhere — not just in the U.S. — if he expected people to take him at his word. As he explained that day:

"As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems… But they asked, and rightly so, 'what about Vietnam?' They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government."

A Global Pandemic Cries Out for Global Cooperation

In 2020, the planet was swept up in a devastating pandemic. Millions died, tens of millions suffered. It was a moment, in Reverend King's spirit, that would have been ideal for imagining new global approaches to America's ongoing wars of the past century. It would similarly have been the perfect moment to begin imagining global cooperative approaches to public health, growing debt and desperation, and intellectual property rights. This especially given that the Covid-19 vaccines had been patented for mega-profits and were available only to some on this suffering planet of ours, a world vulnerable to a common enemy in which the fault lines in any country threaten the safety of many others.

Internationally, at the worst moment imaginable, U.S.-backed institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund continued to demand billions of dollars in debt payments from impoverished countries in the Global South, only forgiving them when their governments fell into step behind the U.S. and Europe, as Sudan has recently done. Moreover, Washington had a golden opportunity when the search for a Covid-19 vaccine threatened to change patent laws and force pharmaceutical companies to work with low-income nations. Instead, the U.S. government backed exclusive deals with Big Pharma, ensuring that vaccine apartheid would become rampant in this country, as well as across the rest of the world. By late March, 90% of the nearly 400 million vaccines delivered had gone to people in wealthy or middle-income countries, with vaccine equity within those countries being a concern as well.

Another menacing development is the thematically anti-Chinese legislation being developed in Congress right now. Three weeks ago, just as the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was nearly across the finish line, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was quietly laying the groundwork for another major legislative package focused on further inflaming a rising cold war with China. For Republicans, legislative action on China is in theory an absolute bullseye, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already made it clear that his support for Schumer's bill will only come if it includes a large increase — once again — in "defense" spending.

The timing and tenor of this debate, steeped as it is in Sinophobia, economic brinkmanship, and military hawkishness, is more than troublesome. Just a few weeks ago, eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were gunned down in Atlanta by a man plagued by his own toxic mix of religious extremism, white supremacy, and sexism. This followed a year in which there were close to 4,000 documented anti-Asian hate incidents in this country, fueled by a president who blamed the Chinese for Covid-19 and regularly used racist nicknames for the pandemic like the "Chinese virus" and the "kung flu."

In addition, an aggressive and potentially militarized anti-China bill is irresponsible when tens of thousands continue to contract the virus daily here at home and we are only beginning to understand the long-term economic consequences of the pandemic. At a time when there are 140 million poor or low-income people in this country, a fully revived and funded war not against China but against poverty should be seen as both a moral responsibility and a material necessity. At least now, poverty seems to be getting some attention in the pandemic era, but how sad that it took the disastrous toll of Covid-19 on American jobs, housing, and nutrition to put poverty on the national agenda. Now that it's there, though, we can't allow it to be sidelined by short-sighted preparations for a new cold war that could get hot.

Cruel Manipulation of the Poor

An inhumane approach to foreign policy and especially wars in distant lands was only half of the spiritual death that Dr. King warned about back in 1967: the other half was how the militarization of this society and a distortion of its moral priorities had brought war and immiseration home. That was what he meant in his sermon when spoke about the "cruel manipulation of the poor."

In 1967, King saw how American soldiers were fighting in Vietnam "on the side of the wealthy and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor." That hell was being created both in the Agent Orange-saturated lands of Vietnam and Laos and, in a different fashion, in so many poor and abandoned communities in the United States.

Dr. King mourned the "brutal solidarity" of disproportionately poor Black, Brown, and white Americans fighting together against the poor in Vietnam, only to return to a nation parts of which were still committed to inequality, discrimination, and racism (despite the struggle and advances of the Civil Rights movement) and remarkably blind to their suffering. In those last years of the 1960s, he watched as the promise of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty was betrayed by massive investments in what President Dwight D. Eisenhower had first dubbed a "military-industrial complex," and in a reactionary narrative, which would only become more emboldened in the years to come, that blamed the poor for their poverty.

Sadly, the decades to follow would, in so many ways, affirm his fears. And yet — to note a spark of hope amid the pandemic gloom — the last year has finally awakened an earnest concern on the part of some in the government to revive the spiritual health of the nation by committing in significant ways to the material health of the poor.

Indeed, ARPA's investments in poor and low-income communities should be celebrated, but the question remains: Why is the Biden administration's Covid-19 legislation so historic and rare? Why is it so unprecedented for the U.S. to invest $1.9 trillion in our own people in a country that, in these last years, has squandered 53% of every federal discretionary dollar on the Pentagon? How is it that we've become so steeped in a militarized economy that we don't bat an eye when politicians propose more funding for the military, even as they say spending on human welfare is irresponsible and unaffordable?

In the lead-up to the passage of ARPA, stalwart old guard Republicans attacked the legislation. In an op-ed for the National Review, Senator Marco Rubio denounced increased welfare spending as "not pro-family" and repeated the tired myth that welfare, by supposedly creating dependency, actually breaks up the nuclear family. So immersed was Rubio in his disdain for the poor that he punctuated his piece with this nonsensical claim: "If pulling families out of poverty were as simple as handing moms and dads a check, we would have solved poverty a long time ago." Is it really necessary to affirm in 2021 that more money in people's pockets actually does mean less poverty?

Meanwhile, longtime senior Democratic economic adviser and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers argued that the Covid-19 bill was the "least responsible" policy in four decades. He had, of course, long been a champion of the austerity policies that helped lead to enormous increases in inequality and poverty in this country. (Many other economists dispute his claim.) It's telling as well that members of the Biden Administration have distanced themselves from him.

Pro-austerity and anti-poor economic policies promoted by influential figures like Rubio and Summers are, in part, what's kept America in a spiritual death spiral since the days of Dr. King. A country now constantly haunted by death has long been consumed by violence and crisis. Sometimes, it's the literal physical violence of another mass shooting, driven by rage, hate, and desperation, or the further militarization of the border, or the use of militarized police violence to clear the most vulnerable from homeless encampments. Other times it's policy violence, whether involving punitive work requirements for food stamps or the refusal to expand Medicaid and make healthcare available and affordable to all. And always, in the background, as Dr. King would certainly have noted, if he were giving his sermon today, is the violence of America's never-ending wars that have eaten so many trillion dollars and killed and displaced so many people in distant lands.

Of particular concern today is the potential death of democracy that the insurrection of January 6th at the Capitol seemed so ominously to signal. I will never forget listening to a long-time organizer in Flint, Michigan, explain that "before they took away our water, they had to take away our democracy."

This was true in the fight for racial justice, welfare, and decent wages during the days of Dr. King and it's no less true in our many human rights struggles today. After all, since 2020, at least 45 states have introduced voter suppression bills, with the recent one in Georgia being only the most egregious and publicized. Such legislation is being proposed and passed by extremist politicians who understand that limiting access to the ballot through racism and a demonization of the poor is the surest way to prevent real and lasting change.

A Moral Revolution of Values

Immediately after cautioning about the spiritual death of the nation in that classic sermon of his, Dr. King made an abrupt and hopeful turn, reminding his audience that a moral revolution of values was urgently needed and that "America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war."

As both a preacher and theologian, he was acutely aware of the story of Jesus. After all, Dr. King, like the Jesus of the Bible, knew that a transformation of society in the image of peace would involve a full-scale reordering of priorities, dependent on a willingness to reject a politics of death and embrace one of life.

For that to happen, however, society would need to be flipped right side up and that, in Jesus's time, in Dr. King's, or in our own, represents a herculean task, one never likely to happen based on the goodwill of those in power. It requires the collective efforts of a movement of people committed to saving the heart and soul of their society.

In this moment following Easter Sunday 2021, 53 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., may we listen to his concerns and honor his enduring hopes by committing ourselves to building exactly such a movement here and now.

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 Frostlands (the second in the 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. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.

The sins of our leaders will leave deep and lasting wounds

In June 1990, future South African President Nelson Mandela addressed a joint session of Congress only months after being released from 27 years in a South African apartheid prison. He reminded the political leadership of the United States that "to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity. To impose on them a wretched life of hunger and deprivation is to dehumanise them."

Three decades later, Congress would do well to finally heed that warning. In a moment of unprecedented crisis, when 140 million people in the richest country on the planet are poor or low-income, when tens of millions of them are on the verge of eviction and millions more have lost their healthcare in the midst of a pandemic, at a moment when Congress and the president are debating the next Covid-19 relief package, isn't it finally time for human rights and guarantees to become the standard for any such set of policies?

I was introduced to the idea of using a human rights framework to address racism and poverty when I got involved in the National Union of the Homeless and the National Welfare Rights Union. From poor and dispossessed leaders building a human-rights-at-home movement, I learned about the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). I came to understand how the concept of inalienable rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution meant that all people should be guaranteed the right to jobs that pay living wages, an adequate standard of living, public education, and the ability to thrive (not just barely survive).

Today, Congress is being driven to respond to a crisis that has this country in its grip with a $1.9 trillion relief package. The lesson of history, however, is that such measures, when they align with the basic demands of justice, should not be piecemeal or temporary. They should not be opportunities accessible only to some but rather guarantees of promise and possibility for everyone. Plagues and pandemics are not simply storms to be weathered before a return to what passes for normal. Americans should not be fooled into thinking that the very policies and measures that left this world of ours a wreckage of inequality, racism, and poverty will now lift us out of this mess. Instead, our political leaders would do well to follow the principle of "Everybody In, Nobody Out."

Matthew Rycroft of the United Kingdom Mission to the U.N. offered a warning to the Security Council appropriate to this pandemic moment:

"How a society treats its most vulnerable — whether children, the infirm or the elderly — is always the measure of its humanity. Even more so during instability and conflict. When a society begins to disregard the vulnerable and their rights, instability and conflict will only grow."

The Right Not to Be Poor

In 1948, after two bloody world wars punctuated by the Great Depression, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, saw a need to safeguard basic rights and a minimum standard of living for people worldwide. The nations of the U.N., according to human rights scholar Paul Gordon Lauren,

"came to regard the economic and social hardship suffered during the course of the Depression as contributing greatly to the rise of fascist regimes, the emergence of severe global competition, and ultimately to the outbreak of war itself… They believed that poverty, misery, unemployment, and depressed standards of living anywhere in an age of a global economy and a technological shrinking of the world bred instability elsewhere and thereby threatened peace."

At the time, the American government, ascendant on the international stage, saw some value in the framework of human rights, even if its actions at home and abroad didn't match up to it. In reality, that same government was putting significant effort into separating political and civil rights from economic rights. It was using every tool in its toolbox from racism to Cold War paranoia to vilify the very idea of economic rights, let alone the interlocking nature of injustice and the need for wholistic remedies.

Social movements suffered from this ideological assault, as Black organizers in the 1950s and 1960s were blocked from the very idea of universal human (including economic) rights and pushed to focus more narrowly on the terrain of "civil rights," as historian Carol Anderson has so vividly described in her book Eyes Off the Prize. Nearly two decades after the release of the UDHR, even on the heels of major civil rights victories, leaders of the Black freedom movement recognized that too much remained unchanged and a deeper fight was needed.

It was in this context that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and others began to articulate the necessity for a broad movement of the nation's poor across racial lines. In 1967, a year before he launched the Poor People's Campaign, he wrote:

"We have left the realm of constitutional rights and we are entering the area of human rights. The Constitution assured the right to vote, but there is no such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income. And yet, in a nation which has a gross national product of 750 billion dollars a year [$20 trillion in 2020], it is morally right to insist that every person has a decent house, an adequate education, and enough money to provide basic necessities for one's family."

While the language of human rights is still with us today, the old battle lines remain stubbornly drawn as economic rights are cast as impractical and unenforceable and civil rights reduced to statements of unity, while voting rights, immigrant rights, and indigenous rights are mercilessly abridged. The focus, at best, becomes the mitigation of poverty and racism, not their abolition, while the fundamental principles of human rights laid out in the UDHR — universality, equality, and indivisibility — are eternally undercut.

Sometimes economic rights are championed but their exercise drastically narrowed. For instance, a universal right to housing becomes the right to due process in eviction hearings; the right to health or food becomes the right to access certain welfare benefits. The result? Universal economic rights become limited opportunities offered, at best, to a limited population of the poor. In the process, attention is refocused on the individual lives and choices of the poor, rather than on the system that produces their poverty or what could transform it. And sadly enough, it becomes ever easier to ignore what should be the most fundamental of human rights, the right not to be poor.

How to Build Back Better

Recently, the administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris announced that, three years after Trump withdrew the country from the U.N. Human Rights Council, it would rejoin as an observer, with the goal of eventually being voted back to full membership. That move, like Biden's decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization, as well as his intention to reengage with UNESCO and the Iran nuclear deal, undoubtedly reflects his interest in refortifying America's international position in the post-Trump era. If he really wants to be an international leader and not just an observer when it comes to human rights, however, undoing the nightmare of the Trump years will only be part of the job that lies ahead.

There will be the continuing fight to ensure that Covid-19 relief is not disastrously watered down by false arguments about balanced budgets and deficits. The costs of inaction — a still-soaring death toll of 480,000 and counting and an estimated 460,000 extra deaths over the next decade thanks to pandemic-related unemployment and its costs — far outweigh the price of decisive action now. The deficits that should truly concern Americans are those in people's paychecks, the lack of food in their refrigerators, and the grim unemployment numbers that make life a misery. Biden and the Democratic leadership have the presidency and a majority in both houses of Congress. Now is the time to move immediately on life-saving measures like raising the minimum wage to $15 (including for tipped workers).

And genuine Covid-19 relief that buoyed our beleaguered nation long enough for vaccines to be widely distributed would just be a start. After all, before the pandemic hit, Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health estimated that 250,000 Americans were dying annually from rising hunger, homelessness, and inequality, conditions that have only deepened over the last year. If the recovery from the 2007-2008 Great Recession is any indication, expect difficult years ahead, even when the pandemic eases. After all, that proved to be a low-wage recovery that disproportionately shifted women and people of color into temporary and precarious jobs. Not surprisingly then, in the decade after that recession, savings were spent down and household debt was on the rise — and only then did Covid-19 hit.

Shouldn't the administration's response to this crisis and the underlying fissures in our society (so badly exacerbated in the Trump years) be held to a genuine human-rights standard? In December, the Poor People's Campaign, which I co-chair, released a set of 14 policy priorities for Joe Biden's first 100 days in office, including not just temporary protections meant to weather the present storm, but permanent guarantees around jobs and income, housing, healthcare, and so much else. Such building blocks for a vibrant democracy and a life free of poverty should be treated as inalienable human rights. Grassroots organizers — whether the Nonviolent Medicaid Army fighting for healthcare as a human right, the Border Network for Human Rights struggling for a just immigration system, or the Homes Guarantee project demanding housing as a right, not a commodity — have been making this point for years.

A new social contract built on human rights requires a fundamentally different approach to foreign policy and rampant American militarism as well. President Biden's recent decision to scale back engagement in the human-rights catastrophe in Yemen is encouraging, though its results remain to be seen. It's obviously time as well to end this country's twenty-first-century forever wars, as well as the suffocating economic sanctions imposed on countries like Venezuela and Iran.

It's morally indefensible that the U.S. spends 53% of every federal discretionary dollar on the Pentagon and that it has more than 800 military bases around the world; that the Pentagon itself is a giant greenhouse-gas emitter; and that this country is not only the largest arms dealer on the planet by far, but continues to "export" weapons of war to our police departments nationwide through the Pentagon's 1033 program. Washington's eternally militarized posture has led to countless human rights violations abroad, while only adding to a loss of human rights at home, as vital resources continue to be siphoned from our schools and hospitals into the military.

A governing agenda that wishes to protect the right not to be poor would at some point also have to reckon with a system that, even amid a pandemic, produced record numbers of billionaires. Last year, as unemployment rates reached historic heights, America's billionaires gained more than $1 trillion in wealth.

America's celebrity culture tracks the day-to-day life of the richest men on the planet like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and celebrates the charitable Covid-19 fighting spirit of people like Bill Gates. His big donations shouldn't, however, distract us from the fact that the wealth of the world's 10 richest men, including Gates, could buy vaccines for every person on the planet.

Intellectual Property Rights in a Pandemic World

As 2020 was ending and the world awaited the arrival of multiple Covid-19 vaccines, India and South Africa made an urgent proposal to the World Trade Organization. They requested that it temporarily suspend intellectual property rights to ensure that all nations could access and produce vaccines and other medical technologies like ventilators, masks, and protective gear. Dozens of other countries came forward to support that proposal, but a few powerful, patent-holding countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and members of the European Union rejected and ultimately quashed it.

On January 18, 2021, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the world was "on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure" because of the unequal distribution of vaccines between rich and poor countries. Indeed, a new report estimates that at least 85 countries — mostly in Africa and parts of Asia — won't have widespread coverage until late 2022 or even 2023, if ever. Meanwhile, vaccine hoarding among rich countries has already reached a fever pitch. And this global reality is being replayed in terms of vaccine distribution within the richest countries as well. In the United States, early evidence suggests that the wealthy are already getting significantly more vaccinations than the poor and people of color, even though Covid-19 rates are far higher in poor communities.

While all of this may have been predictable, it wasn't inevitable. The WHO has cautioned that a "me-first" approach to the vaccines leads to shortages, hoarding, and the pushing-up of prices. And although the profits from this intellectual property are private, the six front-running vaccine candidates have had a total of over $12 billion of taxpayer and public money poured into them.

Intellectual property rights and exclusive vaccine contracts with Big Pharma aren't the only reasons why Covid-19 is morphing ever more distinctly into a poor people's pandemic. They are, however, barriers to a universal and equitable response to a virus that has exposed the world's fragile interconnectedness. With a deadly novel virus on the loose and mutating, at a moment when access to a vaccine may be the difference between life and death, profit over people remains a hegemonic principle. And horrifyingly enough, changes in intellectual property policies over the last few decades may have done even more to increase inequality on this planet than tax cuts for the wealthy.

In the last year, we Americans have battled Covid-19 largely through the same world of trickle-down economics and "austerity" for the poor that was such a reality of the prepandemic world. The Trump administration's response to the disease was a bitter mixture of triage, denial, and greed. The sins of our leaders will leave deep and lasting wounds, but there is, at least, a lesson to be learned from all the suffering, if we're brave enough to take it in: life should come before profit, human rights before property rights. Amen.

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 Frostlands (the second in the 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. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.


The Earth does not belong to Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or the white supremacists who laid siege to the US Capitol

2020 will go down as the deadliest year in American history, significantly due to the devastation delivered by the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, count in nearly two trillion dollars in damage from climate events (many caused by, or heightened by, intensifying global warming), a surge of incidents of police violence inflicted on Black and Native peoples, and millions more Americans joining the ranks of the poor even as small numbers of billionaires soared ever further into the financial heavens. And it's already obvious that 2021 is likely to prove another harrowing year.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

In the first weeks of January alone, Covid-19 deaths have risen to unprecedented levels; record turnout elected Georgia's first Black and Jewish Senators in a runoff where race-baiting, red-baiting, and voter suppression were still alive and well; and a racist, white nationalist mob swarmed the Capitol emboldened by the president, as well as senators, representatives, and other officials, in an attempt to subvert and possibly take down our democratic system. The January 6th attack on that building was by no means a singular event (in a country where local officials have in recent years been similarly threatened). It did, however, highlight dramatically the growing menace of illiberal and anti-democratic forces building in power. And one thing is guaranteed: its impact will hit the poor and people of color most strikingly. Social media and news reports suggest that, with an emboldened white supremacist movement on the rise, more such attacks are being planned.

Many have claimed that those rioters (and the president's infamous "base" more generally) were all, in essence, poor, working-class white people. In reality, however, among those who have led such racist attacks are business leaders, executives, and multimillionaires. As author Sarah Smash writes, "'Poor uneducated whites' are neither the base/majority nor the explanation for Trumpism: stories now abound of middle-class and even affluent white insurrectionists leading and joining the hateful charge at the U.S. Capitol."

Indeed, it would be better to take a more careful look at the rich and powerful, as the storming of the Capitol on January 6th once again exposes the Make America Great Again movement for the sort of fake populism that has, in these years, served elites all too "richly." And the more we learn about that coordinated astroturf assault, the more the dark money that lay behind its origins all these years comes to light.

Questions Must Be Raised

Eleven months into the pandemic, we are living through the most unequal recession in modern American history. For the poor and precarious, this last year was a nightmare that dwarfed the 2007-2008 recession. Between March and October, nearly 67 million people lost work. This month alone about 20 million of them are collecting unemployment. By the end of 2020, one in five adults with children reported that, at times, they didn't have enough to eat, while one in five renters were behind on their payments and faced the threat of eviction during the winter months of a still rampant virus.

At the same time, the wealth of America's 651 billionaires increased by more than $1 trillion to a total of about $4 trillion. At the start of 2020, Jeff Bezos was the only American with a net worth of more than $100 billion. By the end of the year, he was joined by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk — and just last week Elon Musk passed Bezos as the richest person in the world.

A look at the wealthiest of wealthy Americans reveals a cross-section of industry — from the leaders of tech companies like Amazon and Facebook to the top executives of financial institutions like Berkshire Hathaway and Quicken Loans to those heading retail giants like Walmart and Nike, all of which collectively employ millions of workers. At Amazon, where the median pay is about $35,000 a year, Bezos could have distributed the $71.4 billion he made in the last pandemic year to his own endangered workers and he would still have had well more than $100 billion left.

A recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness put it this way:

"Never before has America seen such an accumulation of wealth in so few hands. As tens of millions of Americans suffer from the health and economic ravages of this pandemic, a few hundred billionaires add to their massive fortunes. Their profits are so immense that America's billionaires could pay for a major Covid relief bill and still not lose a dime of their pre-virus riches."

This last point is especially damning since the first and largest Covid-19 relief bill, the CARES Act, handed out billions of dollars worth of benefits to the upper-middle-class, the rich, and corporations. Most of us will only remember the $1,200 checks that went to some of those in need, but the bill also included provisions that favored the already well-off, including higher corporate interest deductions, flexible corporate loss rules, increased charitable tax deductions, and big tax breaks for the super-rich. Other parts of the CARES Act like the Paycheck Protection Program, as well as significant allocations to universities and hospitals, gave generously to large corporations and the wealthiest of institutions.

Direct payments and other measures in that bill did help many everyday people for a short period of time and yet Senate Republicans stonewalled long after those benefits had expired. When they finally relented in December, Mitch McConnell, knowing full well all that he had secured for the rich in the spring, craftily shot down proposed $2,000 checks for individuals as "socialism for the rich," even though they would have disproportionately benefited low-and-middle-income Americans. Now, as the Biden transition team lays the groundwork for another major relief bill, conservative Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia has already threatened that he would "absolutely not" vote for such $2,000 checks.

Of course, the acceleration of inequality and tepid policy solutions to poverty are hardly unique to the United States. This year, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index recorded a 31% increase in wealth among the 500 richest people in the world, the largest single-year gain in the list's history. Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Programme projected that the long-term effects of Covid-19 could force 207 million more people across the globe into extreme poverty. That, in turn, would bring the official U.N. count of those making less than two dollars a day to more than a billion, or a little less than one-seventh of the world's population — and, mind you, that's at the onset of a decade that promises escalating economic dislocation, mass migration, and climate crisis.

A World of Superfluous Wealth and Deadening Poverty

This week, President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn into office and inherit a crisis that demands bold action. He has already said that on day one he will commit his administration to confronting the pandemic, the recession, systemic racism, and climate change. Four months ago, during an event with the Poor People's Campaign, he also told an audience of more than a million people that "together we can carry on Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign, which is based on a simple, moral truth: that we're all created in the image of God and everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect." He concluded by promising that "ending poverty will not just be an aspiration, it will be a theory of change to build a new economy that includes everyone."

For this to be possible, however, the Biden administration will need to reject the supremacy of austerity and the ideology of scarcity. It will instead have to invest in an economy that guarantees health care, housing, food, water, and decent work for all its citizens. This will, of course, require imagining the sort of restructuring of our society that would, no doubt, be the work of a generation or more. But it could at least begin with an honest accounting of the actual abundance so unequally hoarded in the bank accounts, stock, and real estate holdings of this country's richest people and the coffers of the Pentagon and the industrial complex that engulfs it, followed naturally by a plan to share it all so much more fairly.

On the anniversary of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (who, had he not been assassinated, would have been 92 years old this January 15th), it is only fitting to share these still timely and prophetic words of his:

"God has left enough (and to spare) in this world for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and God never intended for some of his children to live in inordinate superfluous wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty. And somehow, I believe that God made it all… I believe firmly that the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. I don't think it belongs to Mr. Rockefeller. I don't think it belongs to Mr. Ford. I think the earth is the Lord's, and since we didn't make these things by ourselves, we must share them with each other. And I think this is the only way we are going to solve the basic problems and the restructuring of our society which I think is so desperately needed."

Exchange Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos for Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Ford, and King's words couldn't be more timely, could they?

Honoring Dr. King

After all, every January, students, workers, and community members sign up for service projects to celebrate King's birthday. In fact, MLK Day is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service, when people paint schools, clean up trash, serve lunch to the hungry, and so much more. Over the last few decades, the spirit of volunteerism has become inextricably linked in the American imagination to King's life and this year will be no exception. Today, amid unprecedented social, political, economic, and health upheaval, and the need to mask and social distance, even President-elect Biden's inaugural committee is organizing a day of service.

In October 1983, as Congress considered the creation of MLK Day, Meldrim Thompson, Jr., the former Republican governor of New Hampshire, privately pleaded with President Ronald Reagan to veto any such legislation, calling Dr. King a "man of immoral character" with "well established" communist connections. Reagan (in what today would be true Trumpian fashion) replied, "On the national holiday you mentioned, I have the reservations you have, but here the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality. Indeed, to them, the perception is reality."

Reagan's noxious remarks remind us that Dr. King was once considered a profound threat to the established order. The reality of Dr. King's radical life has over time been almost unrecognizably smoothed over into an image that, so many years later, even Reagan, even Trump, might applaud. By casting Dr. King as an apolitical champion of charity, however, Americans have whitewashed not just his legacy, but that of the Black freedom struggle he helped lead, which broke Jim Crow, thanks to the most militant kinds of organizing.

Through a wicked transmutation of history, those with the most money and power in society are now allowed to use his name as a bulwark against the collective action of poor and dispossessed people, propping themselves up instead. Today, with carefully excerpted texts like "everyone can be great, because everyone can serve" as proof, King's words are all too often manipulated to sanctify a truly superficial response to the burning crises of systemic racism, poverty, homelessness, hunger, and so much more. Yet even a cursory glance at the historical record should remind us all that King represented an incendiary reality in terms of the America of his time (and, sadly, of ours, too) and that there was nothing corporate-friendly about his image.

Fifty-three years ago, in his sermon "Where Do We Go from Here," he spoke clearly to the question of corporate service, charity, and the kind of truth-telling action he had committed his life to:

"We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the oil?' You begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the iron ore?' You begin to ask the question, 'Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that's two-thirds water?' These are the words that must be said."

On the anniversary of his birth, may others keep asking such questions and remind us, as the Biden era begins, that the Earth does not belong to Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, or the white supremacists who laid siege to the U.S. Capitol. The nation must have the moral courage to carry on the work of Reverend King. After all, the best hope of successfully navigating the crises of 2021 and beyond must involve King's dream of building a multi-racial fusion movement to reconstruct society from the bottom up.

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 Frostlands (the second in the 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. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.


The myths of neoliberalism: Solutions to our most pressing problems are at hand — if only we use them

Martin Luther King, Jr., offered this all-too-relevant comment on his moment in his 1967 speech "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?"

The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent.

King concluded that American society was degrading human life by clinging to old thinking rather than turning to bold, visionary solutions -- words that (sadly enough) ring even truer in our day than in his.In late October as the coronavirus pandemic raged, the Economic Policy Institute released a study showing that it isn't just morally right but an economic necessity to deal with poverty in this country and fast. "If America does not address what's happening with visionary social and economic policy," as that study put it, "the health and well-being of the nation are at stake. What we need is long-term economic policy that establishes justice, promotes the general welfare, rejects decades of austerity, and builds strong social programs that lift society from below."

Even as, almost two months later, we remain trapped in an unprecedented crisis of spreading illness, there is increasingly clear evidence that, were those in power to make other choices, we would no longer need to live burdened by the social ills of old. Oddly enough, because of the Covid-19 crisis, we're being reminded (or at least should be reminded) that, in reality, solutions to many of the most pressing issues of our day are readily at hand if those issues were prioritized and the attention and resources of society directed toward them. In a moment overflowing with lessons, one of the least discussed is that scarcity is a lie, a political invention used to cover up vast reserves of capital and technology facilitating the enrichment of the few and justifying the pain and dispossession of so many others. Our present reality could perhaps best be described as mass abandonment amid abundance.

Indeed, the myth of scarcity, like other neoliberal fantasies, is regularly ignored when politically expedient and conjured up when the rich and powerful need help. The pandemic has been no exception. Over the last nine months, the wealth of American billionaires has actually increased by a third to nearly $4 trillion, even as tens of millions of Americans have filed for unemployment and more evictions loom than ever before in U.S. history. Now, politicians in Washington are haggling over a "compromise" relief bill that offers little in the way of actual relief, especially for those suffering the most.

At the same time, with the health of everyone, not just the poor and marginalized, at risk, the government has proven itself remarkably capable of mobilizing the necessary resources for decisive and historic action when it comes to producing a Covid-19 vaccine in record time. That the same could be done when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable and abolishing poverty should be obvious, if only the nation saw that, too, as a crisis worthy of attention.

Where There's a Will, There's a Way

In 1918, with an influenza pandemic raging in the United States, cities closed down and doctors prescribed painkillers like aspirin as a national debate (remarkably similar to the present one) raged over the necessity of quarantine and masks. At that time, the country simply had to wait for those who were infected to die or develop immunity. Before it was over (in a far less populous land), at least 675,000 Americans perished, more than in every one of our wars since the Civil War combined.

A century later, when the Covid-19 pandemic exploded this March, the country ground to a similar terrifying halt, but under different conditions: for one thing, the shutdown was accompanied by the promise that the government would invest billions of dollars in a potentially successful vaccine produced far faster than any ever before. Nine months later, after the Trump administration had funneled those billions into research and had guaranteed the manufacture and purchase of viable vaccines (radically reducing the business risk to pharmaceutical companies in the process), it appears that we are indeed there. Last month, multiple companies released trial data for just such vaccines that seem to be nearly 95% effective; and Great Britain has, in fact, just rolled out the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine with the U.S. not far behind. On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer's vaccine for emergency use.

A long list of grave questions remains when it comes to the oversight of, and accountability of, those private companies that now hold the health of the world in their hands. Already, the British government has granted Pfizer, which stands to earn billions by beating the competition to market, legal indemnity from any complications that may arise from its vaccine, and the Trump administration has made similar agreements. Much also remains uncertain when it comes to how American-produced vaccines will be fairly distributed, here and across the world, and whether they will be safe, effective, and free. (I recently signed onto a public letter to the incoming Biden administration calling for a "people's vaccine.")

Still, it does seem that the historic speed with which this novel virus could eventually be curbed by just such a vaccine (or set of them) is likely to prove astonishing. Historically, on average, successful vaccines have taken 10 to 14 years to develop. Until now, the fastest effective one ever produced was the mumps vaccine and that took four years. Nearly as remarkable is how so many people have received the news of the coming of those coronavirus vaccines as if it were the norm. If anything, in a time of constant, rapid technological revolution, there's a noticeable impatience, stoked by Donald Trump and others, that it's taken this long.

The Covid-19 vaccine experience does show one thing, however -- what can be done when the resources of this country are marshalled to immediately address a crisis-level issue. Imagine if the same approach were taken when it came to systemic racism, climate change, or the poverty that has only deepened in the midst of the pandemic crisis. Indeed, if the political will were there, Americans could clearly tackle massive problems like hunger and homelessness no less effectively than developing a vaccine, instead of spending millions of dollars on cruel attempts to drive the homeless away by redesigning park benches and other urban architecture to repel those with nowhere to stay. After all, in cities like San Francisco, where homelessness is rampant, there are more vacant houses than there are homeless people.

Although the politics of austerity generally reign supreme on both sides of the aisle in Congress (especially when it comes to antipoverty programs like welfare), it's also true that public spending is regularly and abundantly martialed to solve issues that affect certain parts of society -- namely, the private sector and the military. From subsidies to major companies like big agriculture to critical R&D expenditures for Silicon Valley to public university research that benefits private industry, funding from the state is often the invisible backbone of American business operations and advances. Likewise, spending on the military makes up more than half of the federal discretionary budget, funding everything from the 800 American military bases that circle the planet to expensive and risky new technologies and war machines.

Lessons from the Pandemic

Back in March, the writer Arundhati Roy spoke of the pandemic as "a portal." She was perhaps suggesting that the widespread suffering caused by Covid-19 could open a doorway into a future in which we humans might begin to treat ourselves and the planet with greater devotion. In another sense, however, the pandemic has also been a portal into our past, a way of showing us the conditions that have laid the groundwork not just for the devastation that now consumes us but for possibly far worse to come.

No one could have expected this exact crisis at this exact moment in exactly this way. Yet, before Covid-19, society was already teetering under the weight of poverty and inequality, and a sober look at history offers clues as to why the United States now has the highest Covid-19 case tally and death toll in the world. Too many have died because our country's preexisting conditions of systemic injustice have gone untreated for so long and those in power never seem to learn the applicable lesson of this moment: pandemics spread along the fissures of society, both exposing them more and deepening them further.

Before Covid-19, there were already 140 million people in this country who were poor or a $400 emergency -- one job loss, accident, illness, or storm -- away from poverty. Across America that meant close to 80 million people were uninsured or underinsured, 60 million people had zero (zero!) wealth other than the value of a family car, more than a million people were defaulting on federal student loans annually, and more than 62 million workers were making less than $15 an hour, with more than two million in Florida alone making only $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage. And that's just to begin down a nightmarish list.

For Pamela Sue Rush and about 1.5 million other people, it meant a lack of access to piped water and sewage systems. Before Pamela, who is Black, contracted Covid-19 and died in July, she lived in a mobile home in Lowndes County, Alabama, where human waste festered in her backyard because she didn't have proper plumbing, and in a state that still hasn't expanded Medicaid, and in a country that has no federal guarantee of either healthcare or clean water. Covid-19 may have been the immediate cause of her death, but the underlying one was racism and poverty.

During these pandemic months, a popular notion has been that the virus is a great equalizer because everyone is susceptible. Yet the human and economic toll has been anything but equal across society. It will take more time to find out just what the mortality rate among the poor has been, but it's already clear that those of us with compromised immune systems, disproportionately poor and people of color, are at greater risk of hospitalization and death from the coronavirus, and early reports suggest that poorer counties have higher death rates. An unsurprising but alarming new study found that more than 400,000 Covid-19 cases are associated with the lifting of eviction moratoriums, forcing people out of the safety of their homes; such numbers will only worsen this winter as evictions continue, if such moratoriums aren't extended into the new year.

Beyond the toll of the virus itself, the economic fallout has been devastating for the poor. Between six and eight million people have fallen below the federal poverty line since March (although that measure is an old and broken standard). The true numbers are undoubtedly far higher. The last 38 weeks have seen unemployment claims greater than the worst week of the Great Recession of 2007-2008. Some economists are now talking about a possible quick bounce back once the virus is controlled and yet the long-term damage is only beginning to reveal itself. After all, 10 years after the Great Recession, a time when little in the way of long-term relief was provided, the majority of workers had still not recovered from it. That this crisis is already significantly deeper and wider should give us pause as we consider what the next decade will look like if this country doesn't alter its bleak course.

The fissures in our society were vast before Covid-19 hit and they've only broadened. A vaccine will address the most visible of them, but we as a nation will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis until we learn the most important lesson this moment can teach: that our yet-to-be-United States will only heal as a society when every person's needs are met. In a pandemic, one person without food, water, healthcare, or housing puts everyone at risk. The same is, in fact, true in non-pandemic times, for a society riven by poverty and deprivation will always be unstable and vulnerable.

Martin Luther King once told a crowd in St. Louis that "we must learn to live as brothers or perish together as fools." Today, the balance is tipping perilously toward the latter category, as Congress painfully debates a thoroughly anemic relief bill that promises little for most Americans and sets a dangerous precedent for the coming months. In a recent letter to Joe Manchin, the self-proclaimed "centrist" senator from West Virginia, Reverend William Barber II (my co-chair on the Poor People's Campaign) wrote:

"I am ashamed of this nation. I know you want to do the right thing, and Republicans are tying your hands, but please don't call this a 'centrist plan.' It's more cynical than centrist. It's damn near criminal that millions are hurting, billionaires are getting richer, sick people are dying, poverty is expanding, and the Senate can't do the right thing."

Indeed, the most important things to note in the coming stimulus bill are these: it protects corporations (that have not protected their workers) from any accountability or legal responsibility; it continues to bail out the rich, not the rest of us, with no provisions for stimulus checks and insufficient funding to states and municipalities; it lowers unemployment benefits to $300 per week (based on wages of $7.50 an hour) rather than $600 per week (based on $15 an hour); it is not only significantly less than the nation needs, but less than what was on offer months ago. The cynicism of this relief bill lies in the way it diminishes life for political gain and corporate profit and in the false contention that this is the most that's available to us, the best the nation can do.

The Ghosts of Christmas Present

Call it a cruel stroke of history that Congress should be deliberating on the welfare of millions only a few weeks before Christmas, especially since so many of the key players call themselves "Christians." This holiday season and the winter beyond it promise to be a long, dark portal to who knows where, as temperatures drop, Covid-19 cases continue to rise, and poverty and homelessness are transformed into so many more death certificates. The timing of Congress's new "relief" bill is particularly wicked if, as a Christian, you were to remember the details of Jesus's birth in that manger in Bethlehem.

After all, he was born a homeless refugee to an unmarried teenage mother and had to flee to Egypt with his family as a baby because the ruling authorities already deemed that this poor Palestinian Jewish boy would grow up to be a threat to the established order of injustice. But the powers and principalities of his day were never the only ones who mattered. There were always those who recognized in his birth that, to right the wrongs of society, to protect the lives of countless innocent victims, another way was possible, if society started with the poor and marginalized, not with those already full to the brim.

It's too bad that some of the congressional representatives who call themselves Christian are so unwilling to take a moment to consider the homeless revolutionary who was long ago sent to lead a moral movement from below. They should remember that the story of Christmas celebrates the birth of a poor, brown-skinned leader who, in the Gospel of Luke, is born to "scatter those who are proud, bring down rulers from their thrones, but lift up the humble. He fills the hungry with good things but sends the rich away empty."

In a time when more children are on the brink of being born into poverty, homelessness, and state-sanctioned violence, rather than, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "compress our abundance into the overfed mouths" of the wealthy and corporations, Americans would do well to recognize that scarcity could vanish and that it's time to address systemic inequality.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, 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.

Copyright 2020 Liz Theoharis

The new politics of the poor in Joe Biden’s and Mitch McConnell’s America

In the two weeks since Election 2020, the country has oscillated between joy and anger, hope and dread in an era of polarization sharpened by the forces of racism, nativism, and hate. Still, truth be told, though the divisive tone of this moment may only be sharpening, division in the United States of America is not a new phenomenon.

Over the past days, I've found myself returning to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in 1967, just a year before his own assassination, gave a speech prophetically entitled "The Other America" in which he vividly described a reality that feels all too of this moment rather than that one:

"There are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful... and overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits..

"But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."

In Dr. King's day, that other America was, for a time, laid bare to the nation through mass social unrest and political change, through the bold actions of the freedom fighters who won the Voting Rights Act and then just kept on fighting, as well as governmental programs like the "War on Poverty." And yet, despite the significant gains then, for many decades since, inequality in this country has been on the rise to previously unimaginable levels, while poverty remained locked in and largely ignored.

Today, in the early winter of an uncurbed pandemic and the economic crisis that accompanies it, there are 140 million poor or low-income Americans, disproportionately people of color, but reaching into every community in this country: 24 million Blacks, 38 million Latinos, eight million Asians, two million Native peoples, and 66 million whites. More than a third of the potential electorate, in other words, has been relegated to poverty and precariousness and yet how little of the political discourse in recent elections was directed at those who were poor or one storm, fire, job loss, eviction, or healthcare crisis away from poverty and economic chaos. In the distorted mirror of public policy, those 140 million people have remained essentially invisible. As in the 1960s and other times in our history, however, the poor are no longer waiting for recognition from Washington. Instead, every indication is that they're beginning to organize themselves, taking decisive action to alter the scales of political power.

For years, I've traveled this country, working to build a movement to end poverty. In a nation that has so often boasted about being the wealthiest and freest in history, I've regularly witnessed painful divisions caused by hunger, homelessness, sickness, degradation, and so much more. In Lowndes County, Alabama, for instance, I organized with people who lived day in, day out with raw sewage in their yards and dangerous mold in their homes. On Apache land in Oak Flats, Arizona, I stood with native leaders struggling to cope with generations of loss and plunder, most recently at the hands of a multinational copper mining company. In Gray's Harbor, Washington, I visited millennials living in homeless encampments under constant siege by militia groups and the police. And the list, sadly, only goes on.

As the future administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris heads for the White House (no matter the recalcitrant loser still ensconced there), the rest of us must equip ourselves with both courage and caution, living as we do in a divided nation, in -- to be exact -- two very different Americas. Keep in mind that these are not the insulated, readymade Americas of MSNBC and Fox News, of Republicans and Democrats, of conservatives and liberals. All of us live in a land where there are two Americas, one of unimaginable wealth, the other of miserable poverty; an America of the promised good life and one of almost guaranteed premature death.

Unleashing the Power of Poor and Low-Income Voters

One enduring narrative from the 2016 election is that poor and low-income voters won Donald Trump the White House, even if the numbers don't bear it out. Hillary Clinton won by 12 points among voters who made less than $30,000 a year and by 9 points among voters who made less than $49,999; the median household income of Trump voters then was $72,000.

Four years later, initial estimates suggest that this trend has only intensified: Joe Biden attracted more poor and low-income voters than President Trump both in the aggregate and in key states like Michigan. Trump, on the other hand, gained among voters with annual family incomes of more than $100,000. Last week, the director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab noted that this "appears to be the biggest demographic shift I'm seeing. And you can tie that to [Trump's] tax cuts [for the wealthy] and lower regulations."

In 2016, there were 64 million eligible poor and low-income voters, 32 million of whom did not vote. In 2020, it's becoming clear that poor and low-income voters helped decide the election's outcome by opting for a candidate who signaled support for key antipoverty issues like raising the minimum wage, expanding health care, and protecting the environment. In down-ballot races, every congressional member who endorsed Medicare for All won reelection, even in swing states. Imagine then how many dispossessed and disenfranchised voters might have turned out if more candidates had actually been speaking to the most pressing issues of their lives?

Seventy-two percent of Americans said that they would prefer a government-run healthcare plan and more than 70% supported raising the minimum wage, including 62% of Republicans. Even in districts that went for Trump, voters passed ballot measures that, only a few years ago, would have been unheard of. In Mississippi, people voted to decriminalize medical marijuana, while in Florida a referendum for a $15 minimum wage got more votes than either of the two presidential candidates.

If nothing else, Election 2020 revealed a deeply divided nation -- two Americas, not one -- though that dividing line marked anything but an even or obvious split. A startling number of Americans are trapped in wretched conditions and hungry for a clean break with the status quo. On the other hand, the rampant voter suppression and racialized gerrymandering of the last decade of American politics suggests that extremists from the wealthier America will go to remarkable lengths to undercut the power of those at the bottom of this society. They have proven ready to use every tool and scare tactic of racist division and subterfuge imaginable to stop poor Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous, and white potential voters from building new and transformative alliances, including a new electorate.

It's time to move beyond the defeatist myth of the Solid South or even the dulling comfort of a Midwestern "blue wall." Across the South and the Midwest, there are voter-suppression states still to win, not for a party, but for a fusion movement of the many. The same could be true for the coasts and the Southwest, where there remains a sleeping giant of poor and low-income people yet to be pulled into political action. If this country is ever going to be built back better, to borrow Joe Biden's campaign pledge, it's time to turn to its abandoned corners; to, that is, the other America of Martin Luther King that still haunts us, whether we know it or not.

Fusion Politics in the Other America

When Dr. King gave his "Other America" speech, he was preparing for what would become the last political project of his life: the Poor People's Campaign. At a time when the nation appeared to be fraying at the seams, he grasped that a giant social leap forward was still possible. In fact, he envisioned a protracted struggle that might catapult this country into a new era of human rights and revolution not through sanguine calls for unity, but via a rousing fusion of poor and dispossessed people from all walks of life. And that, as he imagined it, would also involve a recognition that systemic racism and other forms of hate and prejudice were crucial to the maintenence of the two Americas and had to be challenged head-on.

The idea of such fusion politics echoed earlier chapters of political reckoning and transformation in this country. From the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction into the 1890s, newly emancipated Blacks built unprecedented, if fragile, alliances with poor whites to seize governing power. Across a new South, fusion parties expanded voting rights, access to public education, labor protections, fair taxation, and more. In North Carolina in 1868, for instance, legislators went so far as to rewrite the state constitution to codify for the first time the right of all citizens to "life, liberty, and the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor."

For nearly 30 years, I've been part of a modern version of fusion organizing, even as I studied earlier examples of it -- and this country's history is rich with them. Indeed, the modern Poor People's Campaign that I co-chair is itself inspired by such past fusion movements, including the version of politics I was first introduced to by multiracial welfare rights and homeless organizing in the 1980s and 1990s.

Organizations like the National Welfare Rights Union and the National Union of the Homeless first grew in response to the neoliberal politics of President Ronald Reagan and his attacks on the poor, especially the Black poor, or, as he put it, "welfare queens." In response to such myths and deep, divisive cuts, out of shelters and from the streets, poor people began to organize projects of mutual aid and solidarity, including "unions" of the homeless.

By the 1980s, the National Union of the Homeless had been created and had upwards of 30,000 members in 25 cities. Meanwhile, organizers across the country soon escalated their efforts with waves of coordinated and nonviolent takeovers of vacant federally owned buildings at a time when the government had abdicated its responsibility to protect and provide for its poorest citizens. Those poor and homeless leaders also helped the Homeless Union secure guarantees from the federal government both for more subsidized housing and for protections of the right of the homeless to vote.

Today, in the middle of an economic crisis that could, in the end, rival the Great Depression, I'm reminded not just of those moments that first involved me but of the fusion movements of the early 1930s. After all, in those years, shanty towns called "Hoovervilles" -- given that Herbert Hoover was still president -- cropped up in cities across the country.

Not unlike the tent cities of the Homeless Union and the Welfare Rights Movement in the 1980s and the ones appearing today, those Hoovervilles were where masses of the unemployed and homeless gathered to survive the worst of that depression and strategize on how to resist its misery. Multiracial Unemployed Councils organized and fought for relief for workers without jobs then, preventing thousands of evictions and utility shutoffs.

Meanwhile, in the abandoned fields of the Southern Delta from Arkansas to Mississippi, groups like the Southern Tenant Farmers Union pioneered the dangerous work of organizing Black and white tenant farmers and sharecroppers. When the New Deal coalition bet its future on compromise with white Southern extremists, members of that union were among the last guardians of the rights of poor agrarian workers. Their lonely clarity on the significance of fusion politics in the South stood in stark contrast to the rise of an unmitigated politics of white reaction there.

Today, as top Democrats like Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer claim the legacy of Great Depression-era President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, remember the fusion organizing that helped bring him to power and pushed him to enact change. I'm thinking in particular of the more than 40,000 unemployed veterans of World War I who arrived in Washington D.C. in 1932 to demand the early payment of promised bonuses, previously only considered redeemable after 1945. That Bonus Army, as the veterans called it, collected many of the fraying threads of the American tapestry, making camp, sometimes with wives and children, on seized public land just across the Potomac River from the capital's federal office buildings, while holding regular nonviolent marches and rallies.

Eventually, President Herbert Hoover ordered the U.S. Army to tear down the camp in a violent fashion. The mistreatment of those poor and war-weary veterans in the process proved to be a lightning rod for the public and so Hoover lost to FDR in the presidential election later that year, setting the stage for a decade defined by militant organizing and major shifts in national policy.

The Mandate of the Poor Today

There are already those in the media and politics who are counseling restraint and a return to the pre-Trump days, as if he were the cause, not the consequence, of a nation desperately divided. This would be nothing less than a disaster, given that the fissures in our democracy so desperately need mending not with nice words but with a new governing contract with the American people.

The battleground states that won Joe Biden the presidency have also been battlegrounds in the most recent war against the poor. In Michigan, hit first and worst by deindustrialization, millions have struggled with a failing water system and a jobs crisis. In Wisconsin, where unions have been under attack for years and austerity has become the norm, both budgets and social welfare policies have been slashed by legislatures. In Pennsylvania, rural hospitals have been closing at an alarming rate and, even before the pandemic hit, the poorest large city in the country, Philadelphia, had already become a checkerboard of disinvestment and gentrification. In Georgia, 1.3 million renters -- 45% of the households in that state -- were at risk of eviction this year. And in Arizona, the climate crisis and Covid-19 have ravaged entire communities, including the members of Indigenous nations who recently turned out to vote in record numbers.

The people of these states and 15 more helped elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and count on one thing: with their votes, they were calling for more than just an end to Trumpism. They were demanding that a new era of change begin for the poor and marginalized. The first priority in such an era should, of course, be to pass a comprehensive relief bill to control the pandemic and buoy the millions of Americans now facing a cold, dark winter of deprivation. The House and the Senate have a moral responsibility to get this done as soon as the new administration takes office, if not before (though tell that to Mitch McConnell). The first 100 days of the Biden administration should then be focused, at least in part, on launching a historic investment in securing permanent protections for the poor, including expanded voting rights, universal healthcare, affordable housing, a living wage, and a guaranteed adequate annual income, not to speak of divestment from the war economy and a swift transition to a green economy.

That should be the mandate of our next government. And that's why we, the overflowing millions, must harness the fusion politics that was so crucial to the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and organize in the best tradition of our predecessors. Real social progress rarely comes slowly and steadily, but in leaps and bounds. The predictable stalemate of the next administration and its Republican opposition can't be broken by grand speeches in the House or Senate. It can only be broken by a vast social movement capable of awakening the moral imagination of the nation.

It's time to get to work.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, 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.

Copyright 2020 Liz Theoharis

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