OPINION: New ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ revives Dr. King’s vision

OPINION: New ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ revives Dr. King’s vision

Minnesota Spokesman Recorder logo

I must remind you that a starving child is violence. Suppressing a culture is violence. Neglecting school children is violence. Punishing a mother and her family is violence. Discrimination against a working man is violence. Ghetto housing is violence. Ignoring medical needs is violence. Contempt for poverty is violence. – Coretta Scott King

Something is wrong that we have to feed so many. Why should there be poverty with all of our science and technology? There is no deficit in human resources – it is a deficit in human will. – Coretta Scott King

It was not my intent to retread some of the thematic ground I’ve covered over the past couple of months, but current events both locally and across the nation, cause me to do so.

The two columns that were published here in April marked 50 years since Dr. King’s assassination, and subsequently, the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The discussion of the Fair Housing Act is particularly relevant today, as there have been numerous efforts in recent years, both underhanded and overt, to undermine and ultimately overturn this essential law (as ineffectual as it has sometimes been).

Another 50-year milestone that has just passed is what history has come to know as “The Roads to Resurrection City.” It was on Mother’s Day, May 12, 1968, that Coretta Scott King led thousands of demonstrators from far and wide to Washington, D.C. demanding that the U.S. Congress pass an Economic Bill of Rights, an idea originally proposed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944.

The centerpiece of Dr. King’s “Poor People’s Campaign,” the Economic Bill of Rights called for, among other things, full employment and a living wage; sufficient and affordable housing; and the right to health care, social security, and quality education. Of the Poor Peoples Campaign, Dr. King said, “We believe the highest patriotism demands the ending of the [Vietnam] war and the opening of a bloodless war to final victory over racism and poverty.”

Of course, Dr. King was not around to witness the culmination of this campaign or the establishment of Resurrection City on the National Mall where he helped to lead the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom nearly five years earlier. In late June of 1968, six weeks after setting up camp in Resurrection City, demonstrators were violently evicted by the local police and National Guard. Nearly 300 of them, including Dr. King’s most trusted aide Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, were arrested.

Today, history is repeating itself as a new movement (inspired by Dr. King’s original vision), The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, has emerged in communities throughout the United States. This campaign restates the demands of 50 years ago and adds several more. It highlights the rising social and racial inequities in employment, education, housing, economic security, access to health care and health-related outcomes, human rights, and environmental justice.

On Monday, May 14, thousands of protestors, including 13 near the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, were arrested as they engaged in a national groundswell of nonviolent civil disobedience. According to the Minnesota Poor People’s Campaign, this calls for “new initiatives to fight systematic poverty and racism, immediate attention to ecological devastation, and measures to curb militarism and the war economy.”

The national Poor People’s Campaign, along with its state and local affiliates and supporting partners, will continue these demonstrations over the next several weeks before convening at the United States Capitol Building on Saturday, June 23. Dating back to the Women’s March on Washington in January of 2017 up to the student-led March for Our Lives this spring, this will be at least the 22nd major demonstration to take place in Washington, D.C. over the last year-and-a-half.

I am curious to see how America reacts to the upcoming June march as well as to all of the related events leading up to it. Why? Well, let’s be frank for a minute.

An enduring theme throughout the history of this nation is that people living in poverty are somehow to blame for their own plight. There are a number of journalists, scholars and activists, including John A. Powell and Arthur Brooks, who have recently declared that “America can’t fix poverty until it stops hating poor people.”

Please indulge me for a moment while I shift gears to reinforce this point. I chose the two quotes above from Mrs. King specifically for their bold and straightforward assertions. Number one: Poverty is violence. And second, as her husband acutely noted, “Poverty has no justification in our age.”

Why then, do we not have the will to end it? Why do we choose to hate instead?

On a couple of occasions, I have used this space to reference insights from comedian W. Kamau Bell’s CNN documentary series “United Shades of America.” In the third season’s premier episode, which aired at the end of April, Bell visits the U.S.-Mexican border to engage locals about their thoughts on “illegal immigration” and “the wall.”

He visits with a pair of Border Patrol officers who, above all, view their principle responsibility as saving lives. They cite the hundreds of migrants, determined to make a better life for themselves and their families, who die every year from dehydration, heat stroke, and even hypothermia.

It is very common for activists and even concerned citizens who live on the border to leave water out in the hope they might possibly save the life of a fellow human being. Yet, Bell contrasts this good will with images that have been captured of Border Patrol agents who think differently than the two he interviewed.

Knowing full well why the water is there, one Border Patrol agent is shown on film casually kicking gallon after gallon of water down a steep desert hill. Another agent is shown simply dumping water into the sand while he smiles and speaks directly into the camera.

Whatever he was muttering was unintelligible to me, but he was obviously quite proud of himself. Apparently, that was his idea of justice, or national security, or whatever.

Let that sink in. And while we do, let us not forget that poverty is violence. Poverty kills. Hate kills.

Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104

OPINION: We already know that poverty is a math problem. So, what else is it?

OPINION: We already know that poverty is a math problem. So, what else is it?

Minnesota Spokesman Recorder logoSecond in a six-part series

By Clarence Hightower

MINNESOTA SPOKESMAN RECORDER — Poverty and poor health worldwide are inextricably linked… Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of poor health. Poverty increases the chances of poor health. Poor health in turn traps communities in poverty.  — Health Poverty Action

Poverty’s harsh effects on health start before babies are born and pile up throughout their adult lives. With stressed-filled homes, shaky nutrition, toxic environments and health-care gaps of every kind, kids in very low-income families may never catch up when it comes to their health.  — Lisa Esposito

The World Health Organization estimates that, across the globe, poverty directly contributes to the deaths of 18 million people each year. Yet, others such as The One Campaign insist that at least that many children alone die annually from malnutrition, which if true, would account for close to half of all deaths on the planet. Regardless of the actual number, it is clear that extreme poverty decimates our world through disease, hunger, and lack of access to clean water and medicine, alongside other maladies.

Of course, it is not difficult to argue that the extreme poverty that plagues much of the world is substantively different than poverty in the developed world, including the United States. And still, the extreme physical effects that poverty has on its victims in America are undeniable.

A study from the National Institute of Health reveals that “about 4.5 percent of all deaths in the United States are caused by poverty-related deficiencies and that poverty is a contributing factor in still more deaths.” Additional research from Columbia University’s School of Public Health calculates the number of yearly deaths in this from “poverty-related issues” to be in the hundreds of thousands, which some suggest make it the leading cause of death in this country.

Now, it may be rather difficult to accurately quantify such a figure; however, it is quite easy to link the relationship between poverty and the physical impact it has on the health outcomes of Americans regardless of race, sex or age. Poor Americans disparately suffer from a multitude of illnesses and chronic diseases, including various forms of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, respiratory problems, stress-related illness, and other physical disorders.

In addition to hunger and poor nutrition, substandard housing, transportation barriers, and limited access to quality health care, another critical factor that often plays a detrimental role in the health and wellness of low-income communities is the toxic environment in which they live, work, and go to school.

People residing in poorer neighborhoods are exponentially more likely to be exposed to pollutants and chemicals from industrial plants, landfills, toxic waste facilities, manufacturing mills, and other environmental hazards. Low-income children — who already suffer from significantly higher rates of iron deficiency, stunted growth, obesity, and injury — are inimitably susceptible to ecological factors.

Poor kids, especially those of color are much more likely to develop severe asthma and lead poisoning, as well as food and other allergies. Poverty is perhaps the greatest public health crisis that America faces today.

Unfortunately, the physical effects of poverty only seem to be getting worse. A 2016 study from MIT’s Department of Economics reveals that the life expectancy gap between rich and poor continues to increase drastically among both men and women.

It is troubling to me that more of our leaders and institutions do not see poverty and its effects on their fellow citizens as the calamity that it is. It is not only a public health disaster, but also an issue of human rights. And, I am not sure that anyone could capture the particular gravity of this issue better than the Canadian public health crusader Dr. Charles Hastings.

In 1918, during his address to the American Public Health Association, Hastings proclaimed, “Every nation that permits people to remain under the fetters of preventable disease, and permits social conditions to exist that make it impossible for them to be properly fed, clothed and housed, so as to maintain a high degree of resistance and physical fitness, and that endorses a wage that does not afford sufficient revenue for the home, a revenue that will make possible the development of a sound mind and body, is trampling a primary principle of democracy.”

The world may be a different place 100 years later, but some things always remain true.

Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104

OPINION: We already know that poverty is a math problem. So, what else is it?

OPINION: We already know that poverty is a math problem. So, what else is it?

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First of a six-part series

Poverty is the worst form of violence.  — Mahatma Gandhi

Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit. — Eli Khamarov

Poverty is brutal, consuming and unforgiving. It strikes at the soul.  — Charles M. Blow

Last August, I introduced the first column in a six-part series declaring that “poverty is not a character flaw,” but rather a math problem (and so much more). The math problems identified during the course of the series focused on America’s substantial inequities in employment, education, housing and transportation.

Then, in the final column, I began to explore the idea that, in addition to being a math problem, poverty is “so much more.” Poverty is an unrelenting assault on humanity, a wicked scourge that can have a decidedly detrimental effect on the health and wellness of those caught in its steely grasp.

In this new six-part series titled “We already know that poverty is a math problem. So, what else is it?” I will explore the impact that poverty has on the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual well-being of people.

The series will conclude with an attempt to tackle Ruby K. Payne’s intriguing notion of the hidden rules among classes, which she describes as “the unspoken cues and habits of a group.” She adds that here in the United States, such a concept is often “recognized for racial and ethnic groups, but not particularly for economic groups.”

Still, before I begin to address these issues over the next couple of months, I would like to briefly discuss some of the inherently unique obstacles that people living in poverty face, which are generally unbeknownst to others. I am reminded of a passage from James Baldwin’s essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” where he writes:

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor, and if one is a member of a captive population, economically speaking, one’s feet have simply been placed on the treadmill forever.”

A half-century after these words were composed by the legendary writer and activist, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Charles M. Blow revisited Baldwin’s assertion, noting that while its “original intent” was related to monetary matters (namely paying more for lesser goods), he has personally “always considered that statement in the context of the extreme psychological toll of poverty.”

To his point, consider some of the decisions people in poverty make that others couldn’t bear to imagine, like choosing between buying food, paying the light bill, or purchasing prescription medications. In fact, the threat of unexpected costs or the potential of a personal or family crisis likely figures in every choice made by those below the poverty line.

The truth is that poor households don’t have the luxury of planning for the future. For those in poverty, sometimes the day’s only objective is to survive into tomorrow.

These are just some of the reasons that the life expectancy of someone who is poor is 10 to 15 years less than someone who is not. Or why many in poverty are forced to find more than one job, often working longer hours than most and performing back-breaking work for insufficient pay. Far too many of our fellow citizens live in substandard housing, can’t find or afford nutritious food, lack access to quality health care, and are consigned to underfunded  public schools.

The stress of poverty, as demonstrated by a number of recent studies, plays havoc with the physiological, psychological, emotional and spiritual health of millions of Americans each and every day. Pure and simple, poverty is violence and it should not stand.

As Dr. King famously said upon winning the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

Yes, indeed.

Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.