In today’s America, the real emergency is that a quarter of a million people die from poverty each year
Reverend William Barber and Dr Liz Theoharis
February 25, 2019
In declaring a national emergency to fund an unnecessary border wall this month, Donald Trump has provoked a conversation about what the word “emergency” actually means.
Forget the manufactured border crisis, let’s talk about the real emergencies facing the nation today. Right now in America, there are 140 million people living in poverty or just one paycheck or emergency away from poverty. Thirty-seven million people live without healthcare and 62 million are paid less than a living wage. Fourteen million families cannot afford water and millions are living with poisoned water and without sanitation services. We suffer under an impoverished democracy that has less voting rights today than it did after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.
In other words, there is a national emergency of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation and the war economy. And it didn’t start with President Trump, though he is certainly making things worse. The truth is, neither party has done what we need to address this real emergency, despite the fact that our deepest religious and constitutional values compel us to care for the vulnerable, welcome the immigrant, pay workers what they deserve, and organize society around the needs of the poor.
The holy scriptures tell us there is an emergency any time policy makers “legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights and make women and children their prey” (Isaiah 10).
But instead of tackling real and urgent emergencies, the president and his enablers are focused on building an immoral border wall. Senator Lindsey Graham says children need a wall more than they need a middle school. It’s this same kind of racism that explains how he and Senator Mitch McConnell can support Trump’s monument to white supremacy.
If the president and our elected officials were truly worried about the southern border, their focus would be on the real emergency that’s staring them in the face. Along the border in Texas, hundreds of thousands are being denied health care because their home state refused to expand Medicaid. Workers make $7.25 an hour and struggle to support their families. Unaccompanied minors who cross the border seeking asylum are sent to federal detention centers until caseworkers can find them a home. If they turn 18 before that, they graduate to adult detention facilities.
There is a crisis at the border just as there is a crisis across Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, our inner cities, small towns and rural areas, and along the coasts. In North Carolina alone, 2 million people live in poverty. In Lowndes county, Alabama, families without proper wastewater treatment infrastructure live with raw sewage pooling in their yards. 45% of people in Alabama are poor or low-income – a total of 2.1 million residents. This includes 53% of children (589,000), 47% of women (1.1 million), 60% of people of color (976,000), and 37% of white people (1.1 million). In West Virginia, over 53,300 veterans (33% of the state’s veteran population) have incomes below $35,000 a year.
It’s horrific that America has come to this. But just as shameful is that we have the power to change it, but don’t. Instead of spending $8bn on Trump’s border wall, that same money could instead fund:
- 3.36 million children or 2.25 million adults receiving low-income healthcare for a year.
- 774,312 military veterans receiving VA health care for a year.
- 98,982 elementary school teaching jobs for a year.
- 107,999 clean energy jobs for a year.
- 897,800 Head Start slots for children for a year.
Instead of focusing on the real emergency of poverty, the president and his enablers have decided to exploit a racist lie that people from Spanish-speaking countries are the greatest threat to this nation. They claim that this is a greater threat than hunger, lack of health care and jobs that pay starvation wages.
And the fact is, it’s not just the Republican party that has ignored these issues. Poverty has increased by 60% since the Rev Dr Martin Luther King launched the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. We can no longer accept the same political discourse that for the past 50 years has refused to mention poverty nor can we accept politicians enacting policies that prey on the poor. It’s time to talk about the real emergencies plaguing our nation and the real moral issues of our day – the lack of health care, living wage jobs, clean water and sanitation, the militarization of our communities, the attack on indigenous sovereignty.
And it’s time to talk about how we got to this point in the first place. We cannot address systemic racism and poverty unless we acknowledge the fact that voter suppression has distorted our democracy. When extremists are elected through voter suppression and racist gerrymandering, they pass policies that hurt poor black, brown and white people and exacerbate poverty.
This is the time to take on the lies of the enablers. When people say poverty is caused by laziness, race, or lack of moral character, we must expose these lies.
In today’s America, the real emergency is that a quarter of a million people die from poverty each year while our political system refuses to use the great wealth of this nation to lift the load of poverty.
- The Revs Dr William Barber II and Dr Liz Theoharis are co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. They are launching a nationwide bus tour hitting over two dozen states in March to highlight the true emergencies facing the nation’s 140 million poor people