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Fighting Back in the War on the Poor

What’s the first thing that you think of when you think of Martin Luther King, Jr.? Perhaps the “I have a dream speech”?

That’s what we learn about in school. But what was King’s dream at the end of his life?

It was to build a massive movement of all poor people, united across lines of division, challenging conditions of poverty, systemic racism, and militarism — which sucks our resources into endless wars. Shortly before he was assassinated, King and many allies launched the first Poor People’s Campaign.

In many ways, the first Poor People’s Campaign marked a departure from the broader civil rights movement up until that point.

For King, it was a transformation in his thinking from a focus on the civil rights of African Americans to the human rights shared by all. It meant no longer addressing racism as an isolated issue, but instead recognizing that systemic racism, poverty, and militarism are closely connected. Together they keep people of all races down.

It marked a shift from a period of reform to what he called a period of revolution. These might sound like radical words — and indeed many people around King at the time felt that this new campaign was a bit too radical.

But King and his allies could see that despite the huge victories of the civil rights movement, major societal problems still weren’t resolved. They realized that it would take a broad-based movement of all struggling people to change the conditions in our communities.

In many ways, conditions are worse now that they were 50 years ago.

According to a new Institute for Policy Studies report, 140 million Americans are poor or low-income. Yet 53 cents of every discretionary tax dollar goes to the military, compared to just 15 cents to fight poverty. Meanwhile, nearly half of all states have passed laws making it harder for poor people and people of color to vote.

People are definitely feeling that in my state of Pennsylvania.

The most recent State of Working PA report finds that the bottom 70 percent of Pennsylvania workers saw their wages decline between 2009 and 2014, during what was termed the so-called “recovery.” Pennsylvania is in the top four states for opioid overdoses, and over 3 million people in our state are living below or close to the federal poverty line.

Pundits and politicians like to preach about what we should do to get out of poverty while blaming us for experiencing it. But they haven’t explained how it’s possible to have an economic recovery without things getting better for our families.

If “the economy” can recover without real people recovering, then whose economy is it really?

What can we do about all this? The first thing we can do is to change our mentality, and drop the shame and stigma that’s associated with not being able to make ends meet.

The second thing that we can do is to connect with others. A new Poor People’s Campaign is being organized to fight back against the war on the poor today, and it’s coming to over 30 states — including mine and maybe yours — this spring. To learn more, check out poorpeoplescampaign.org.

Nijmie Zakkiyyah Dzurinko is a lifelong Pennsylvanian who believes in the power and potential of everyday people. 

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