Poverty is a lethal epidemic. It’s time to address it.

Politicians who fail to act are complicit in the deaths of thousands.

Religion News Service
By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis
June 20, 2023

(RNS) — Bertha Montes had “bulging red, glossy eyes” that, according to her co-workers at an East Los Angeles McDonald’s, looked like they were popping out of her head. She felt so sick she asked her manager if she could go home, but the manager denied her request. Bertha depended on the job to provide for herself and her family, so she worked three more hours to finish her eight-hour shift.

She left the McDonald’s in an ambulance. Five weeks later, she was dead.

Earlier this month, her co-workers waged an eight-day strike to honor Montes’ memory and sound the alarm that one of the world’s most iconic companies was forcing low-wage workers to work while sick. Her death came as researchers at the University of California-Riverside issued a report that shows poverty is the fourth leading cause of death in the country. 

That puts poverty higher than homicide, respiratory disease or gun violence. The report, which studied data only through 2019, didn’t include deaths related to COVID-19, which killed poorer people at a higher rate than other Americans.

Yet, every night on the evening news, we hear about homicide, but rarely about death by poverty, low wages, the lack of health care or economic inequality. 

We hardly ever hear about folks like Stanley Sturgill, from Lynch, Kentucky, who worked 41 years in the coal mines beneath Black Mountain and organized both for workers’ rights and an end to mountain-top removal mining practices. He died earlier this year from complications related to black lung.

Poverty is a death sentence. As the UC Riverside study shows, it’s an epidemic. Yet instead of talking about lack of living wages, denial of health care or the voter suppression that contributes to both, politicians who claim to represent people like Sturgill push a false moral narrative of religious nationalism. They argue that the real moral issues of our time are standing against LGBTQ+ communities and a woman’s right to choose while defending tax cuts and gun rights. 

The real moral question for our country is where we stand in relation to the poor and the least of these — who are many of us. Instead of deflecting to culture wars and partisanship, lawmakers ought to focus on the hundreds of people dying each day from poverty in the wealthiest nation on earth. Our politicians have failed to act, and leaders who stand silent in the face of these injustices are complicit in their deaths. 

How? The U.S. hasn’t raised the minimum wage in 14 years. We let the expanded child tax credit expire, causing child poverty to rise. We’re kicking people off Medicaid by the hundreds of thousands. We solved a purported debt ceiling crisis on the backs of the poor. We must call these decisions what they are: murder by policy. 

Absurdly, our politicians are sworn into office on Bibles and vow to defend rights “endowed by our Creator.” Meanwhile, what the Creator cares about we push to the margins. 

This week, we will join hundreds of people impacted by poverty and faith leaders from across the country in Washington to to declare that we will not be silent anymore in the face of these deaths. People from all walks of life, farmers from Kansas and fast-food workers from North Carolina, will join us. We will meet with senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle to implore them to listen to the millions of people living in poverty. 

A delegation will go to the White House, where we’ll meet with senior staff in preparation for a meeting with the president later this year. We cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand while families are burying loved ones by the hundreds each day in this nation of abundance as a result of poverty. 

We’re not just cursing the darkness, but offering solutions. We will push Congress to pass the Third Reconstruction Act, a large-scale federal effort to end poverty and dismantle racist policies and structures introduced in the House on May 25. A resolution to be introduced by U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Barbara Lee will highlight more than 20 policies to address poverty and other systemic injustices, including raising the minimum wage, expanding unemployment insurance and paid family leave, enshrining the right to form or join a union, and guaranteeing access to basic needs like housing, water and health care.

We will put our leaders on notice that if they don’t act, we’ll vote them out. Poor and low wealth people make up nearly 40% of the electorate and have the ability to decide elections. This Congress is the beginning of a season of intensification heading into the 2024 election in which poor and low wealth people of every race, creed and color will mobilize like never before and show that they are a bloc that can fundamentally shift political outcomes in this nation. 

Bertha Montes couldn’t afford to lose her job at McDonald’s, so she continued to work even though she was gravely ill. It isn’t right. Her death, like hundreds of others each day, didn’t have to be. The foundation of our nation can’t stand all of this death much longer. If we’re not going to stand up and face it all now, then when are we? 

(The Rev. William J. Barber II and the Rev. Liz Theoharis are co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Photo by Kenny Eliason/Unsplash/Creative Commons