The man who made national headlines recently by catching a young girl and her mother as they were tossed from a burning building in West Philadelphia had been homeless for a year.
Frankly, the story of Hakim Laws probably went viral mainly because he was an Eagles fan who lamented that one of the team’s receivers wasn’t so sure-handed. But he’s also a helpful reminder that far too many Americans are in poverty — and that far too few of our politicians have chosen to speak for them.
One presidential candidate did run in recent years on a platform of helping the poor. Problem is, his name was John Edwards.
But mostly the poor are addressed on the farthest edges of policy debates, if they are discussed at all. They are invisible. Unmentionable. They who shall not be named.
Now along comes a preacher from North Carolina who wants to make the plight of the poor more than an inconvenient truth. The Rev. William Barber, the former head of the state NAACP — and still the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro — wants to put poverty front and center during the 2020 presidential election, and beyond. So he is mobilizing a reboot of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Poor People’s Campaign of 1968.
King said 51 years ago: “People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way ... and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.’ ” (For you “I Have a Dream” fans, Dr. King also was fluent in smack when he needed to be.)
Like the one in 1968, the new movement will culminate in a march on Washington — before the election. King’s words were echoed in Barber’s during an interview in Greensboro last week. “People in this country are very ready to deal with the problems of inequality and low wealth,” Barber said of the 25-state Poor People’s Campaign of 2019.
Barber in particular called out what he characterized as “a false moral narrative” of “religious nationalism.” “This basically says that if you’re for prayer in the schools and against women’s right to choose and for guns and the flag, against LGBT persons, and you’re for tax cuts, that somehow those are the moral issues.”
Jesus, he said, spoke of caring for “the least of these.” Sadly, “the least of these” are worse off. The Census Bureau reports that, despite a booming economy, the gap between the richest and poorest Americans is the widest it has been in 50 years. You don’t need to look far to see why: Tax cuts for the wealthy; the Trump administration’s attempts to cut food stamp benefits; an Education Department that opposes student loan debt relief and coddles predatory lenders. And at the state level: tax cuts for corporations even as schools go wanting and Republicans’ irrational refusal to expand Medicaid.
The report does cite North Carolina as one of five states where poverty decreased for the fifth consecutive year. But Barber finds cold comfort in that. Forty-eight percent of North Carolinians are classified as either in poverty or low-wealth. “There’s not one county in this whole state,” he said, “in which a person making minimum wage can afford a two-room apartment.”
That’s immoral as Barber sees it. And “we’re talking about white and black and brown ... people of every race, creed and color.” Roughly 300,000 of the 500,000 North Carolinians who would benefit from Medicaid expansion are white, he added; 30,000 are veterans.
But in divided times like these, can this group even hope to mobilize people of all colors to come together for a common cause? Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign co-chair, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, noted a visit to a Trump stronghold, Harlan County, Ky., which also happens to be one of the poorest counties in the country. White people, black people and Latinos packed a church in a place where Trump won nearly 85% of the vote in 2016. Theoharis asked a woman why.
“We knew what Trump was,” the woman told her. “But he came here. He talked to us.”
That’s at least one thing Trump got right. And that’s what all candidates need to do. But unlike Trump, whose actions show little regard for the poor, they need to mean it. Words are empty without substance.
Barber recalled the parting request of a North Carolina man who works five days week yet still lives in a homeless camp: “Don’t forget us.”