Newspaper headlines are warning of rising inflation and the possibility that voters will respond to it by punishing Democrats in the midterm elections this fall. But there are few, if any, headlines about the enormous numbers of Americans who are low-income and poor—a travesty in one of the world’s wealthiest nations.
The problem of poverty is marked by several factors, the first of which is a deeply flawed government indicator of who qualifies as poor. Measured by the federal poverty line, about 37 million Americans live below the poverty line—that’s about 11 percent of the population.
But this leaves out many millions more Americans who live one emergency expense away from poverty. The Poor People’s Campaign (PPC): A National Call for Moral Revival relies on economic calculations showing that 140 million Americans—which is more than 40 percent of the population—are poor or low-income.
The second factor is mainstream media coverage that routinely skews in favor of wealthy elites by downplaying the extent of poverty. For example, when President Joe Biden cited the PPC’s estimate in an address in June 2019, the Washington Post engaged in a lengthy fact-checking investigation, interviewing numerous analysts who nitpicked over the difference between “poor” and “low-income” people, saying, “The two terms sound alike, but they describe different economic conditions.”
A third obstacle is corporate greed and how wealthy elites are vacuuming up every dollar they can into their own pockets, taking advantage of an economic system they helped to build in order to benefit themselves. For example, the investment giant Morgan Stanley released a report recently complaining about how rising wages were eating into corporate profits.
But of course, any wage increases are dampened by inflation rates rising much faster. This is a decades-long trend, not a new phenomenon, as any honest economist would explain.
But now that inflation is rising faster than it was before, media pundits and news outlets suggest that the fault lies with Americans earning higher wages and spending too much money.
There is evidence to the contrary—that inflation is rising because of bloated corporate profits, not an increase in wages and consumer spending—a point that the corporate media has failed to elevate or investigate with the same enthusiasm with which it has decided poverty is not a serious national problem.
When Biden was running for president, he addressed the PPC in September 2020, affirming the moral necessity of eradicating poverty and promising to do what he could to end it. The message was consistent with his platform to “Build Back Better,” a slogan that became the name of his ambitious anti-poverty legislation.
In December 2020, after it was clear that Biden had won the election, his transition team reached out to the PPC for a meeting and discussed a list of 14 policies that the organization laid out for his first 100 days in office that included COVID-19 relief for low-income Americans, guaranteed health care for all, a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, and more.
In June 2021, once he was elected, Biden once more reached out to the PPC with a recorded message for the PPC ahead of its annual national gathering affirming his alignment with its goals.
But in spite of Biden’s numerous nods to the PPC and its agenda to eradicate poverty, few, if any, of the organization’s demands have been met. Biden’s Build Back Better bill is languishing, stymied by the stubborn refusal of two corporate Democrats, Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), to support most of their party’s progressive legislative proposals.
Bishop William Barber II and Rev. Liz Theoharis, the PPC’s co-chairs, recently wrote a letter to Biden requesting another meeting with the White House ahead of their June 18 March on Washington.
In their letter, the two progressive leaders reminded Biden that when he addressed their gathering as a candidate running for office, he “promised that ending poverty would be more than an aspiration.”
According to Barber and Theoharis’ letter, it’s not enough to aspire to enacting anti-poverty measures. They wrote, “We have offered a moral narrative that refuses to accept the lies of scarcity or partisan gridlock as excuses for taking action. We are determined to change the conversation about what is possible, so that we can ensure all of our justice, here and now.”
It’s a call for the president to engage directly with what matters most: not economic phenomena like inflation, not politics and the midterms, but that which impacts more than 40 percent of the nation’s population—poverty and financial precarity.
Rev. Theoharis told me in a recent interview that Biden had made a “commitment to ending poverty, not managing, not ameliorating, to actually looking at the policies that could lift people up.” Still, Theoharis said, “we’ve been pushing and will continue to push Congress because we know that those two Democratic senators [Sinema and Manchin] and 49 Republican senators have stood against living-wage jobs and voting rights.”
Among the anti-poverty measures that the Build Back Better bill would have enacted was the renewal of an expanded child tax credit. During the brief time that an increased child tax credit was in effect, it helped to push millions of American families out of poverty.
Theoharis said that the challenge of making headway on poverty lies in the question of, “how can the president be able to use the microphone that he has to turn it toward poor and low-income people, low-wage workers?” In other words, how can Biden use his bully pulpit to pressure the media and congressional lawmakers into taking seriously the needs of 140 million Americans?
“Any nation that has 43 percent of its population living in poverty or one couple-hundred-dollar emergency away… from absolute economic ruin is an impoverished democracy,” said Theoharis. The PPC has for years been trying to shift the culture and the national conversation away from the pro-business mentality that measures economic health by stock prices and Wall Street’s profits rather than by whether or not most Americans are financially stable.
But Morgan Stanley had it right when it pitted corporate profits against rising wages. There cannot be both rising profits and rising wages. Corporate profits depend on keeping wages low. In order to lift most Americans out of poverty, we need higher wages that will necessarily cut into corporate profits. If Wall Street sees such logic as class warfare, so be it, for Wall Street has been waging just such warfare on the American people for far too long.
“What happens when you actually provide for the people, when you actually ensure that people are making living wages and have housing, is that that actually saves the nation, both spiritually and morally,” said Theoharis, reminding us that what matters much more than the unquenchable thirst of a handful of wealthy elites is the well-being of all Americans.