It started in 1968 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for civil rights. He and others saw the need for a “revolution of values” in America. So, they created a movement to help unite poor communities across the U.S. That movement was and is called the Poor People’s Campaign. And while MLK passed before the project could be complete, others picked up where he left off.
Now, the Poor People’s Campaign spans 46 states, including Texas. At its core, the Poor People’s Campaign and its state branches bring attention to the needs of poor people in America and fight for legislation that supports them. In late May, they submitted a comprehensive resolution to the U.S. Congress to make economic changes related to health care, wages and a laundry list of other things to help protect the poor.
At a June 7 press conference, the campaign’s state coordinating committees called for U.S. House members to embrace the resolution.
“We want to give a voice to the poor and low-wage workers,” said Sophia Harville of the state coordinating committee for the Texas Poor People’s Campaign. “There’s just a lot of misinformation out there about poor people — them being lazy, not wanting to work, and these types of things. We’re trying to shed light on what’s really happening here.”
Texas Poor People’s Campaign
Texas is not immune to economic disparities. According to a fact sheet from the Texas Poor People’s Campaign website, 44% of people, or 12.6 million residents, in Texas are poor or low-income. Of that number, 55%, or 4 million, are children; 47%, or 6.6 million, are women; 55%, or 1.8 million, are Black; 61%, or 6.4 million, are Latinx; and 31%, or 3.7 million, are white.
Motivated by economic justice, the Texas Poor People’s Campaign embraces “the idea that all people should have what they need to live.”
Or as their slogan says, “Let’s fight poverty, not the poor.”
The Texas branch of the Poor People’s Campaign has local groups in Austin, Houston and Collin County, Harville said. But while the group’s work is often political, the organization is non-partisan.
Harville pointed out that though the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated economic disparity, there were 140 million poor and low-wage persons across the U.S. before the pandemic hit.
“[But] the pandemic has really illuminated, really brought to light some of the disparities that are out there,” Harville said.
Called the “Third Reconstruction: Fully addressing poverty and low wages from the bottom up,” the campaign’s resolution submitted to the U.S. House covers various things to help and protect poor persons.
Specifically, the resolution asks that Congress commit to healing the country over the next two years by updating the poverty measure, raising the minimum wage to a “living wage,” expanding welfare benefits, expanding unemployment insurance, ensuring paid family and medical leave for all workers, ending evictions, canceling past due rent and mortgage payments, relieving student debt, implementing a universal health care program and many other related proposals.
And aside from the parts of the resolution that address issues related to low-income persons, the resolution also covers voting rights and climate change. For example, the resolution asks Congress to establish a “fair redistricting process” to prevent gerrymandering influenced by racism and invest in green energy.
“So, it is a comprehensive resolution — not just focused on one area, but a combined number of areas to really uplift the poor, to bring them out of poverty,” Harville said.
Students in need
At the press conference via Zoom Monday, Patry Lerwick, a public school teacher with the Texas Poor People’s Campaign, shared a story about one of her students, Michael, whose family’s low-income status nearly killed his mother. She was struggling with COVID-19, yet too afraid to go to the doctor because she couldn’t afford it.
In February, Michael reached out to Lerwick, who works with Title 1 students, saying that his mom was having trouble breathing. They finally convinced her to go to the hospital, and she was immediately put in the ICU unit, leaving Michael and his brother alone to fend for themselves during Winter Storm Uri.
“So I’m here today because I want to make sure that we have a message that’s clear — we need Texas and our country to change for our children,” Lerwick said. “Half of our kids in this country are poor or low income. And in Texas, 4 million children are in poverty.”