On a recent night in Richmond, Virginia, speaker after speaker came forward to talk about the multidimensional reality of poverty. The setting was a hearing held by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
“I’ve been working for years as a professional and I don’t earn a living wage,” said Joyce Barnes, a home health care worker based in Richmond. “It hurts. It hurts so much.”
She described how she gets no sick days or vacation days, and can’t take a day off to spend with her grandchildren. She owes a hospital thousands of dollars for medical bills even though she now has insurance.
“Don’t be fooled by a false narrative about us,” added Abbie Arevalo-Herrera, an undocumented immigrant who fled life-threatening circumstances to come to Virginia. “We are families surviving and struggling to make a decent life with many fears and hardships — economic, racial, language, health, transportation, housing, among others.”
Other speakers spoke about the imposition of a fracking pipeline in their neighborhood, the murders of black people by police officers, and the impact of military spending on Virginia’s population.
These stories were not isolated examples. Together, they tell a complex story of how poverty operates in Virginia and beyond.
An analysis of Census data by the Institute for Policy Studies shows that a stunning 43 percent of people in the state are poor or low income — that’s 3.5 million residents. This includes more than half of all children in the state and almost 60 percent of Virginians of color.
Over 6,000 people are homeless in Virginia, according to the federal government, and more than 800,000 people lack health insurance by the Kaiser Family Foundation’s count. Medical expenses are a leading cause of poverty according to most data.
Tied to the lack of economic power is the suppression of political power of marginalized populations.
As the Brennan Center notes, Virginia is one of numerous states that’s implemented voter suppression measures. Virginia requires a photo ID to vote, which can put voting out of reach for many poor people, students, elderly people, or people of color.
And according to the Sentencing Project, black residents are incarcerated — and therefore denied their right to vote — at five times the rate of white residents of Virginia. There’s been some progress made in restoring the right to vote of Virginians with criminal convictions, though the disparities in incarceration remain.
Because so many Virginians don’t have a voice at the table, tax dollars — both state and federal — consistently address the wrong problems.
Instead of promoting green jobs and measures to improve the well-being of low-income residents like the 114,000 veterans living under $35,000 a year, more money is spent on the defense industry in Virginia by the federal government — $42.7 billion — than in any other state except California.
According to the National Priorities Project, Virginia’s contribution to the country’s endless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond totals $137.2 billion since 2001. That money could instead have created 1.85 million new jobs in clean energy, or placed every Virginian child in Head Start early childhood education programs.
By drawing attention to these issues, the Poor People’s Campaign did a public service. Without swift and direct action to correct course, Virginia — and every other state facing similar problems — risks leaving even more residents like Barnes and Arevalo-Herrera behind.
It’s time for the Old Dominion, and the United States, to chart a new course.