In 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders launched a Poor People’s Campaign to organize towards transformative actions to end poverty, racism, and militarism in America.
While this effort was undercut by King’s assassination, two prominent faith leaders — the Rev. Liz Theoharis and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II — are launching a new multi-issue, multi-racial Poor People’s Campaign to recapture the spirit of that 1968 campaign.
To support this modern-day Poor People’s Campaign, the Institute for Policy Studies has produced an analysis of the campaign’s four core issues: racism, poverty, the war economy/militarism, and ecological destruction. The report finds that by many measures, these problems are worse today than they were five decades ago.
For example, the report documents the increased number of Americans below the poverty line; the acceleration of economic inequality; the emergence of new forms of voter suppression laws and mass incarceration that further entrench systemic racism in America; the growing imbalance in federal discretionary spending on the military relative to social programs; and the intensification of racial and income disparities in access to clean air and water and exposure to environmental hazards.
This report is a preliminary analysis for release at the launch of the new Poor People’s Campaign on December 4, 2017. A more in-depth “audit” of these issues, including testimonials from many of the leading activists and thinkers of the past 50 years, will be released in 2018.
Key initial findings:
- Compared to 1968, 60% more Americans are living below the official poverty line today — a total of 41 million people. And while the percentage of families in poverty has merely inched up and down, the top 1 percent’s share of national income has nearly doubled.
- More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, people of color still face a broad range of barriers to democracy. According to the Brennan Center, 23 states have adopted voter suppression laws since 2010.
- The criminalization of poverty and racially biased sentencing and policing practices have driven the number of prison inmates up eightfold since 1968, with the share who are people of color increasing from less than half to 66%. Federal spending on prisons has increased tenfold in real terms since 1976.
- Spending trends also reflect increased scapegoating of immigrants. Between 1976 and 2015, federal expenditures on border control and immigration enforcement rose eightfold while the number of deportees grew tenfold.
- The gap between our government’s discretionary spending on the military versus anti-poverty programs has grown from two-to-one at the height of the Vietnam War to four-to-one today. In the meantime, millions of lives have been lost in wars that have made us no safer, while “real security” in the form of good jobs, health care, and quality education remains beyond the reach of millions of Americans.
- Since 1968, the environment has become less polluted, but the poor and people of color are bearing the brunt of climate change and suffering the most from environmental hazards. According to the CDC, for example, at least four million families with children are being exposed to high levels of lead, with low-income and people of color at greatest risk. And low-income families and people of color tend to be more likely to have living conditions and jobs that increase the health risks of extreme heat.