by Zarina Castro
WALDEN – Three people from the Gazette’s coverage area, Pastor Ed Sunday-Winters from Greensboro United Church of Christ, Amy Lester of Plainfield, from the Vermont Workers’ Center, and Deacon Zarina Castro of Walden, from the Church of St. John’s in the Mountains, joined 13 others from Vermont to attend the Moral Poverty Action Congress of the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC), a National Call for Moral Revival. This took place in Washington, D.C. from June 19 to June 21. Before the congress, Bishop William Barber II, one of the co-chairs of the PPC, spoke forcefully about the fact that, in this country, poverty kills.
On the first day of the Congress, the presenters were University of California Riverside Professor David Brady, the author of a recent report about poverty, Valerie Wilson from the Economic Policy Institute, and Valerie Eguavoen, Associate Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice. They have all researched and studied the effects and costs of poverty. The most startling statistic cited was that, before COVID, poverty was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. It follows heart disease, cancer and accidents. Following poverty as causes of death in the United States are homicide, firearms, drug overdoses, suicide, and diabetes.
We hear a lot in the news about homicide, firearms, drug overdoses, and suicide. We hear little about poverty, and yet the effects of poverty kill more people in the United States than do these other causes.
The Congress had three components. The first day was devoted to presenting the data from the experts on the effects and costs of poverty. Thereafter, members of the Congress, from 30 states and the District of Columbia, planned for visits to all their Senators and Congressional Representatives. On the second day, the entire Congress of over 600 individuals convened and then took 16 buses to the Capitol to make arranged visits to over 400 congressional leaders. The Vermont delegation had arranged visits with staff from the offices of Senator Sanders, Senator Welch, and Representative Balint.
I went with others to the office of Representative Balint. We introduced ourselves. One of our members was a person who was recently homeless in Burlington. They shared some of their experiences as a poor person who has physical challenges because their father was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. As a homeless person, they have experienced health issues because of having to live for a time in a trailer with black mold; of having medical directives not followed; of having food poisoning because of not being able to refrigerate their food; and of being the witness to a drive-by shooting. They are living on $6 a day for their food, and this has to include purchasing water. Poverty, they said, is killing people. Another member of the delegation presented fact sheets of poverty in the U.S. (poorpeoplescampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/2023-National-Fact-Sheet-8.5-%C3%97-11-in.pdf), and about poverty in Vermont (poorpeoplescampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/Vermont-State-Fact-Sheet-2.pdf). Lastly, another member requested that the Congresswoman support all the goals articulated in the Third Reconstruction agenda of the Poor People’s Campaign. These goals can been seen in their entirety at poorpeoplescampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Third-Reconstruction_long_9-15.pdf.
After meeting with Senators and Congress-women and -men, we convened at the foot of the steps of the Supreme Court for sharing of stories by affected persons. This was a very powerful part of the program, and showed the very personal ways that individuals across the country are affected by the limitations and privations of poverty. We then walked to Capitol Hill for a press conference, and then to a nearby park for dinner, before returning on buses to the hotel.
On the last day, we heard some of the history of the Poor People’s Campaign, which was begun in the 1960’s by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shortly before his murder. We heard of the five key principles of the United States Constitution: to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and future generations. The presenters argued that these principles are not being met in our country where: between 2020-2022, billionaire wealth in the United States grew by $1.5 trillion, more than $2 billion a day; in Vermont, 194,000 people, or 31.3% of the state’s population, were poor or low-income; in Vermont, over 98,000, nearly one-third of the workforce, earn less than $15 per hour; in 2022, average Vermont household debt rose 5% to $51,170; and approximately 100 million Americans struggle with medical debt.
In 2021, 17 million low-wage workers without children received the Earned Income Tax Credit and 65 million children received the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC). These programs contributed to a dramatic decline in poverty among adults and children. In one year, the expanded CTC alone moved 3.7 million children in the Unites States above the poverty line. When the expanded Child Tax Credit ended in 2021, over 3.5 million children were pushed back below the poverty line. In 2022, expanded SNAP benefits (food stamps) reached 42 million families in the United States and prevented 850,000 instances of food insufficiency every week. In 2023, SNAP benefits were reduced by $90-$250/month, cutting average benefits to just $6 per day.
The Third Reconstruction agenda of the Poor People’s Campaign has many demands from our political leaders concerning the poor. The campaign demands that the 140 million poor and low-income people in our nation are no longer ignored, dismissed or pushed to the margins of our political and social agenda. The campaign challenges the lie of scarcity in the midst of abundance. A full list of the demands is in the Third Reconstruction document cited above.
Through the Congress, at every transition, participants sang and danced to songs of the movement, led by theomusicologists and an always present band with drums, keyboard, electric guitar and a saxophone player, the last of who also accompanied us when we went to Capitol Hill. The first verse of one the frequently played songs was:
Somebody’s hurting my brother
and it’s gone on far too long
Yes, it’s gone on far too long
It’s gone on far too long
I said, somebody’s hurting my brother
and it’s gone on far too long
And we won’t be silent anymore.
That last line captures the theme of the congress well: We won’t be silent any more!
[Zarina Castro is a resident of Walden.]