Liz Theoharis – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 20 Jul 2022 02:45:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Christian Nationalists want to Control your Body: How Dobbs Is an Attack on Us All Wed, 20 Jul 2022 04:02:47 +0000 ( ) – When I was the age that my daughter is now, my favorite sweatshirt had the words “Choice, Choice, Choice, Choice” in rainbow letters across its front. My mom got me that sweatshirt at a 1989 rally in response to Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld a Missouri law restricting the use of state funds and facilities for abortion, an early attempt to eat away at Roe v. Wade. And though many adults in the Wisconsin neighborhood where I grew up thought that message inappropriate for a 13 year old, I wore it proudly. Even then, I understood that it spoke not just to a person’s right to an abortion, but also to the respect and dignity that should be afforded every human being.

Since then, it has become increasingly clear that our society does not confer rights and dignity on we the people — as seen in the slashing of school food programs, the denial of Medicaid expansion in states that need it most, attacks on Black, Brown, and Native bodies by the police and border patrol, as well as the Supreme Court’s recent decisions to put fossil-fuel companies ahead of the rest of us, guns above kids, and deny sovereignty to indigenous people and tribes, while failing to protect our voting rights and ending the constitutional right to abortion.

For millions of us, the Dobbs v. Jackson decision on abortion means that life in America has just grown distinctly more dangerous. The seismic aftershocks of that ruling are already being felt across the country: 22 states have laws or constitutional amendments on the books now poised to severely limit access to abortion or ban it outright. Even before the Supremes issued their decision, states with more restrictive abortion laws had higher maternal-mortality and infant-mortality rates. Now, experts are predicting at least a 21% increase in pregnancy-related deaths across the country.

As is always the case with public-health crises in America — the only industrialized country without some form of universal healthcare — it’s the poor who will suffer the most. Survey data shows that nearly 50% of women who seek abortions live under the federal poverty line, while many more hover precariously above it. In states that limit or ban abortion, poor women and others will now face an immediate threat of heightened health complications, as well as the long-term damage associated with abortion restrictions.

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Indeed, data collected by economists in the decades after Roe v. Wade indicates that the greater the limits on abortion, the more poverty for parents and the less education for their children. Worse yet, the 13 states that had trigger laws designed to outlaw abortion in the event of a Roe reversal were already among the poorest in the country. Now, poor people in poor states will be on the punishing spear tip of our post-Roe world.

While the Supreme Court’s grim decision means more pain and hardship for women, transgender, and gender non-confirming people, it signals even more: the validation of a half-century-old strategy by Christian nationalists to remake the very fabric of this nation. For the businessmen, pastors, and politicians who laid the foundations for the Dobbs ruling, this was never just about abortion.

The multi-decade campaign to reverse Roe v. Wade has always been about building a political movement to seize and wield political power. For decades, it’s championed a vision of “family values” grounded in the nuclear family and a version of community life meant to tightly control sex and sexuality, while sanctioning attacks on women and LGBTQIA people. Thanks to its militant and disciplined fight to bring down Roe, this Christian nationalist movement has positioned itself to advance a full-spectrum extremist agenda that is not only patriarchal and sexist, but racist, anti-poor, and anti-democratic. Consider the Dobbs decision the crown jewel in a power-building strategy years in the making. Consider it as well the coronation of a movement ready to flex its power in ever larger, more violent, and more audacious ways.

In that context, bear in mind that, in his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that the Dobbs decision gives the Supreme Court legal precedent to strike down other previously settled landmark civil rights jurisprudence, including Griswold v. Connecticut (access to contraception), Lawrence v. Texas (protection of same-sex relationships), and Obergefell v. Hodges (protection of same-sex marriage). Whether or not these fundamental protections ultimately fall, the Supreme Court majority’s justification for Dobbs certainly raises the possibility that any due-process rights not guaranteed by and included in the Constitution before the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 could be called into question.

The Christian nationalist movement long ago identified control of the Supreme Court as decisive for its agenda of rolling back all the twentieth-century progressive reforms from the New Deal of the 1930s through the Great Society of the 1960s. Less than a week after the Dobbs decision, in fact, that court overturned Massachusetts v. EPA, the 2007 ruling that set a precedent when it came to the government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions by polluting industries. May Boeve, head of the environmental group, put it this way:

“Overturning Roe v. Wade means the Supreme Court isn’t just coming for abortion — they’re coming for the right to privacy and other legal precedents that Roe rests on, even the United States government’s ability to tackle the climate crisis.”

To fully grasp the meaning of this moment, it’s important to recognize just how inextricably the assault on abortion is connected to a larger urge: to assault democracy itself, including the rights of citizens to vote and to have decent healthcare and housing, a public-school education, living wages, and a clean environment. And it’s no less important to grasp just how a movement of Christian nationalists used the issue of abortion to begin rolling back the hard-won gains of the Second Reconstruction era of the 1950s and 1960s and achieve political power that found its clearest and most extreme expression in the Trump years and has no interest in turning back now.

Abortion and the Architecture of a Movement

Throughout American history, a current of anti-abortion sentiment, especially on religious grounds, has been apparent. Some traditional Roman Catholics, for instance, long resisted the advance of abortion rights, including a church-led dissent during the Great Depression, when economic disaster doubled the number of abortions (then still illegal in every state). Some rank-and-file evangelicals were also against it in the pre-Roe years, their opposition baked into a theological and moral understanding of life and death that ran deeper than politics.

Before all this, however, abortion was legal in this country. As a scholar of the subject has explained, in the 1800s, “Protestant clergy were notably resistant to denouncing abortion — they feared losing congregants if they came out against the common practice.” In fact, the Victorian-era campaign to make abortion illegal was driven as much by physicians and the American Medical Association, then intent on exerting its professional power over midwives (mainly women who regularly and safely carried out abortions), as by the Catholic Church.

Moreover, even in the middle decades of the twentieth century, anti-abortionism was not a consensus position in evangelical Protestantism. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, evangelicalism’s most significant denomination, took moderate positions on abortion in the 1950s and 1960s, while leading Baptist pastors and theologians rarely preached or wrote on the issue. In fact, a 1970 poll by the Baptist Sunday School Board found that “70% of Southern Baptist pastors supported abortion to protect the mental or physical health of the mother, 64% supported abortion in cases of fetal deformity, and 71% in cases of rape.”

So what changed for those who became the power-brokers of a more extremist America? For one thing, the fight for the right to abortion in the years leading up to Roe was deeply intertwined with an upsurge of progressive gender, racial, and class politics. At the time, the Black freedom struggle was breaking the iron grip of Jim Crow in the South, as well as segregation and discrimination across the country; new movements of women and LGBTQ people were fighting for expanded legal protection, while challenging the bounds of repressive gender and sexual norms; the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam had catalyzed a robust antiwar movement; organized labor retained a tenuous but important seat at the economic bargaining table; and new movements of the poor were forcing Washington to turn once again to the issues of poverty and economic inequality.

For a group of reactionary clergy and well-funded right-wing political activists, the essence of what it was to be American seemed under attack. Well-known figures like Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, who would found the Moral Majority (alongside Jerry Falwell, Sr.), began decrying the supposed rising threat of communism and the dissolution of American capitalism, as well as what they saw as the rupture of the nuclear family and of white Christian community life through forced desegregation. (Note that Jerry Falwell didn’t preach his first anti-abortion sermon until six years after the Roe decision.)

Such leaders would form the core of what came to be called the “New Right.” They began working closely with influential Christian pastors and the apostles of neoliberal economics to build a new political movement that could “take back the country.” Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, often cites this Paul Weyrich quote about the movement’s goals:

“We are radicals who want to change the existing power structure. We are not conservatives in the sense that conservative means accepting the status quo. We want change — we are the forces of change.”

Indeed, what united these reactionaries above all else was their opposition to desegregation. Later, they would conveniently change their origin story from overt racism to a more palatable anti-abortion, anti-choice struggle. As historian Randall Balmer put it: “Opposition to abortion, therefore, was a godsend for leaders of the Religious Right because it allowed them to distract attention from the real genesis of their movement: defense of racial segregation in evangelical institutions.”

Many of the movement’s leaders first converged around their fear that segregated Christian schools would be stripped of public vouchers. As Balmer points out, however, they soon recognized that championing racial segregation was not a winning strategy when it came to building a movement with a mass base. So they looked elsewhere. What they discovered was that, in the wake of the Roe decision, a dislike of legalized abortion had unsettled some Protestant and Catholic evangelicals. In other words, these operatives didn’t actually manufacture a growing evangelical hostility to abortion, but they did harness and encourage it as a political vehicle for radical change.

Looking back in the wake of the recent Dobbs decision obliterating Roe v. Wade, Katherine Stewart put it this way:

“Abortion turned out to be the critical unifying issue for two fundamentally political reasons. First, it brought together conservative Catholics who supplied much of the intellectual leadership of the movement with conservative Protestants and evangelicals. Second, by tying abortion to the perceived social ills of the age — the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, and women’s liberation — the issue became a focal point for the anxieties about social change welling up from the base.”

What this movement and its allies also discovered was that they could build and exert tremendous power through a long-term political strategy that initially focused on Southern elections and then their ability to take over the courts, including most recently the Supreme Court. Abortion became just one potent weapon in an arsenal whose impact we’re feeling in a devastating fashion today.

A Fusion Movement from Below?

As Reverend William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, has pointed out, check out a map of the states in this country that have banned abortion and you’ll find that you’re dealing with the same legislators and courts denying voting rights, refusing to raise municipal minimum wages, and failing to protect immigrants, LGBTQIA people, and the planet itself. As the Economic Policy Institute described the situation after Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito’s leaked draft opinion on abortion hit the news in May:

“It is no coincidence that the states that will ban abortion first are also largely the states with the lowest minimum wages, states less likely to have expanded Medicaid, states more likely to be anti-union ‘Right-to-Work’ states, and states with higher-than-average incarceration rates… Environments in which abortion is legal and accessible have lower rates of teen first births and marriages. Abortion legalization has also been associated with reduced maternal mortality for Black women. The ability to delay having a child has been found to translate to significantly increased wages and labor earnings, especially among Black women, as well as increased likelihood of educational attainment.”

Indeed, the right to abortion should be considered a bellwether issue when judging the health of American democracy, one that guarantees equal protection under the law for everyone. Fortunately, the most recent Supreme Court rulings, including Dobbs, are being met with growing resistance and organizing. Just weeks ago, thousands upon thousands of us came together on Pennsylvania Avenue for a Mass Poor People and Low Wage Worker’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls. On the very day of the Dobbs decision and ever since, protests against that ruling, including acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, have been growing.

In a similar fashion, striking numbers of us have begun mobilizing against gun violence and the climate crisis. At this moment as well, we seem to be witnessing the rise of a new labor movement with workers already organizing at Starbucks, Dollar General stores, and Walmart, among other places. The Christian nationalist movement relies on a divide-and-conquer strategy and single-issue organizing. A pro-democracy and justice movement must resist that approach.

As a Christian theologian and pastor myself, I’ve been deeply disturbed by the growth of the Christian nationalist movement. We would do well, however, to heed their focus and fury. Its leaders were very clear about how necessary it was, if they were ever to gain real power in this country, to build a national political movement. In response, the 140 million poor and low-wealth Americans, pro-choice and pro-earth activists, and those of us concerned about the future of our democracy must do the same, building a moral movement from below. And such a movement must not be afraid of power, but ready to fight for it. Only then can we truly begin to reconstruct this country from the bottom up.

Copyright 2022 Liz Theoharis


The Poor at the Crossroads: The First and Worst Hit by Pandemics of Every Sort Fri, 22 Apr 2022 04:02:29 +0000 ( ) – The 54th anniversary of the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., just passed. Dr. King was shot down while organizing low-wage sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. At that time, he was building the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to organize America’s poor into a force to be reckoned with. In his opposition to the Vietnam War and his promotion of a campaign to lift the load of poverty, he suggested that racism, poverty, and militarism could only be dealt with by uniting millions of poor people to change the very structure of our national life.

More than half a century later, his message remains tragically relevant in our seemingly never-ending pandemic-ridden moment, still rife with racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. Indeed, today, 60% more Americans are living below the official poverty line; racialized laws to suppress their votes have been passed in dozens of states; and the longest war in our history, the 20-year disaster in Afghanistan, only ended late last year, while globally conflict and bloodshed still swirl around us.

You need only check out the conditions of life for the 140 million Americans who are poor or low income to recognize how relevant King’s message still is. Today, the poor live at the crossroads of injustice, hurt first and worst by the interlocking evils of climate change, militarism, and racism, as well as other forms of violence and inequality. With gas prices ever higher, food shortages on the rise, and a possible recession (or worse) looming, those who continue to suffer the most will be those most affected by whatever is to come.

A Poor People’s Pandemic

A new report about the disproportionate effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on poor communities has just been issued by the Poor People’s Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverend William Barber) and the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The Poor People’s Pandemic Report connects data about Covid-19 deaths at the county level with other demographic information to demonstrate that, during the pandemic so far, poor counties have experienced twice the number of deaths as higher-income ones — and up to five times the number at the height of various waves of the disease. It reveals that Covid-19 has, in fact, been a poor people’s pandemic, one that exposes the depth of the racism, poverty, and ecological devastation that preceded it in poverty-stricken communities. That should be shocking news, don’t you think? But throughout the pandemic, the story of its unequal impact has largely not been covered by the mainstream media.

Quite the opposite. Over the last two years, there have been countless stories about how Covid-19 was the great equalizer — how, unlike us, pandemics and plagues don’t discriminate. All too sadly, the new report shows clearly that, though a virus may not be able to discriminate, our society has in fact discriminated in the most virulent ways. Consider it an outright indictment of a society that allowed the deaths of almost 250,000 poor and low-income people in the year 2000 alone, two decades before the pandemic even hit our shores. It should be a wakeup call for a society that has become far too accustomed to death, at least when it’s poor people who are dying.

As Reverend Barber, who came up with the idea for the new report, explained, “The finding of this report reveals neglect and sometimes intentional decisions to not focus on the poor. There hasn’t been any systemic or systematic assessment of the impact of Covid-19 on the poor and low-income communities.” Indeed, to date, the government hasn’t even collected data on the impact of the pandemic based on income levels, leaving us to do the necessary detective work.

Importantly, the report’s findings can’t be explained by vaccine status alone. The disproportionate death rate among poor and low-income people is the result of a complex combination of factors, including work and life conditions that long predated the pandemic. For example, 22% of Native Americans, 20% of Hispanics, 11% of Blacks, 7.8% of Whites, and 7.2% of Asians didn’t have health insurance in 2019 just before the pandemic hit. Not surprisingly, perhaps, preexisting disparities in healthcare access, wealth distribution, and housing security yielded disastrous effects once it did so.

If you were to hold up a collective mirror to us, you would see a nation in which there were 87 million uninsured or underinsured people and 39 million workers who made less than a living wage before the pandemic struck. You would see a government that refused to either expand health care (even during the worst public-health crisis in generations) or raise wages for the very workers who can’t afford the essentials of life. You’re talking about a country in which, again before the pandemic arrived, 14 million families couldn’t afford to pay their water bills and more than half of our children lived in food-insecure homes. Is it any wonder that so many poor and low-income people suffered and died with the arrival of the virus?

Sacrifice Zones of the Poor

That toll from Covid-19 is, however, only one way to understand the recent impact of policy choices related to the poor. It was all too symbolically on target that immediately after releasing the Poor People’s Pandemic Report, the Poor People’s Campaign kicked off a Moral March on West Virginia that was to go from Harper’s Ferry to one of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin’s congressional offices in Martinsburg. Poor moms, former coal miners, labor organizers, and climate activists from West Virginia hiked 23 miles to call on “their” senator to begin actually addressing the needs of his constituents — to expand voting rights, raise the minimum wage to a living one, extend the Child Tax Credit, protect this planet, and invest in education, health care, and programs of social uplift.

In reality, by blocking the passage of even a watered-down Build Back Better bill in Congress, Manchin refused to legislate in the interest of the majority of his constituents, especially the 710,000 poor and low-income West Virginians. He has similarly blocked bills to restore and expand voting rights protections through the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

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Meanwhile, by refusing to vote to end the filibuster in the Senate or enact a fairer taxation system, Manchin continues to ensure that policies benefiting millions of Americans and the planet writ large will once again be left at the side of the road. He’s repeatedly chosen to side with the greed of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest lobbying group in the country, and the fossil-fuel industry against the needs of the people. And such stances have been disastrous. Figures compiled by the Institute for Policy Studies last year showed that in West Virginia, the $3.5 trillion version of the Build Back Better bill would have created 17,290 new jobs, benefited 346,000 children by extending the expanded child tax credit, and allowed an additional 88,050 West Virginians to take paid leave each year.

To make matters worse, in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, there’s the Rockwool Ranson Plant, an insulation manufacturing factory set up in a poor community. Our Moral March made its way through Ranson. While there, we heard about a mother whose children go to a school just blocks from the plant, which is within two miles of four public schools that house 30% of the county’s student population (as well as several daycare centers). Scientists tested the blood levels of kids at North Jefferson Elementary School before the plant opened in 2021. Just a year later, there were already higher rates of asthma and toxins in their blood. Indeed, the very placement of that plant goes against the recommendations of the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization (WHO), both of which assert that heavy industry should not be located near schools. (WHO has specifically stated that industrial plants shouldn’t be located within two miles of schools.)

We heard testimony from horse breeders who claimed they could no longer raise thoroughbreds because of the changing air quality and bee farmers who, after generations of family farming, said they can no longer make a living. Not surprisingly, it’s a poor community with a high percentage of Black residents. No public hearings were even held before the plant’s opening, which Senator Manchin attended. Still, local resistance to it has been strong and continues to grow.

The Vulnerable Suffer the Consequences

Such suffering and resistance are realities not just in the hills and hollows of West Virginia. At the very time when West Virginians were rallying against the Rockwool Ranson Plant, for example, protests broke out in New York City against Mayor Eric Adams’ crackdown on the unhoused, including police sweeps of homeless encampments.

No wonder we in the Poor People’s Campaign travelled from that Moral March on West Virginia directly to New York to hold a Moral March on Wall Street. And just as Joe Manchin has gotten away with attacks on the poor while styling himself a populist hero, so Eric Adams has insisted that the sweeps he ordered are what’s best for New Yorkers, including the unhoused. Yet the true depth of homelessness there betrays the cruel measures Adams is pursuing.

In a city that spends more than $2 billion a year on homelessness, roughly 47,000 people — more than 14,500 of them children — sleep in its homeless shelters each night. Rather than address the scourge of poverty and the homelessness that goes with it, Adams has chosen to destroy more than 200 homeless encampments, while all-too-symbolically cutting the city’s homelessness budget by one-fifth. Like Manchin, he’s pursuing an all-too-familiar path in twenty-first century America: punishing the poor for their poverty while further gentrifying the city as a playground for the rich.

This is not, however, happening without a fight from the unhoused, local grassroots organizations, and even some politicians. The majority of New York’s City Council, for instance, has denounced his encampment demolitions. In a letter of opposition, they pointed out that “these sweeps will not end homeless[ness]; they will only put people in further harm.”

Amid all of this, one comment by Adams stopped me in my tracks. While meeting with a group of clergy, he argued that the disciples of Christ would have supported his homeless encampment sweeps, saying, “I can’t help but to believe that, if Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were here today, they would be on the streets with me helping people get out of encampments.”

As a Christian preacher and biblical scholar, I should note that such a statement is not simply wrong or insensitive; it’s heretical. The Bible is clear that the rich and powerful are to blame for poverty, abuse, and injustice, not the poor themselves. And not surprisingly, throughout the ancient scriptures, those who hoard the wealth of the world also twist the words of the prophets to their own advantage at the expense of the poor and exploited.

But, as the story goes, just as Jesus was crucified and died, the tombs of the freedom fighters who came before him were opened and they were revived to continue the fight for justice. Hate and death, we are reminded, never have the last word.

Building Movements Not Monuments

Three years after Martin Luther King’s assassination, Carl Wendell Hines penned this poem about him entitled A Dead Man’s Dream:

“Now that he is safely dead let us praise him
Build monuments to his glory, sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make such convenient heroes.
They cannot rise to challenge the images we would fashion
from their lives.
And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
So now that he is safely dead
We, with eased consciences, can teach our children that he
was a great man,
Knowing that the cause for which he lived is still a cause
And the dream for which he died is still a dream
A dead man’s dream.”

Jesus Christ was killed by the Roman Empire for building a movement of the abused and excluded, only to have his memory distorted by hateful and sacrilegious theologies throughout the ages. King was murdered as he fought poverty, racism, and militarism, only to later be quoted and canonized by those who despised him. Indeed, as Hines points out, it is far “easier to build monuments than to make a better world.” But as those in power like Joe Manchin and Eric Adams continue to find comfort in their (bad-faith) praise of prophets like Jesus and King, poor and dispossessed people in places like Ranson and New York continue to carry on the work of justice.

Yes, the organizing of the poor and dispossessed should be considered at least one antidote to the pandemics, literal and figurative, plaguing our society as we grieve for almost one million Americans dead of Covid-19 and more than six million people globally. Even if many of us don’t always either see or hear it, the leadership of those most affected by poverty and injustice is crucial to our future. They are what King once called “a new and unsettling force” capable of transforming “our complacent national life.”

Copyright 2022 Liz Theoharis


Joe Manchin’s America: The Resurgence of the Culture-of-Poverty Debate Mon, 28 Feb 2022 05:04:24 +0000 ( ) – As if killing the Child Tax Credit, blocking voting rights, gutting key climate legislation, and refusing living wages wasn’t enough, West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin is now promoting legislation that further punishes the poor and marginalized. Along with Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, he’s introduced the PIPES Act, which undercuts key harm-reduction funding from the Department of Health and Human Services. It arrives with a media campaign launched by Fox News and other conservative outlets pushing bogus claims that the Biden administration is using government funds to buy “crack pipes,” tapping into a decades-long campaign to scapegoat vulnerable populations rather than address the root causes of the unconscionable conditions under which they live.

Paired with Manchin’s moralizing and obstruction when it comes to President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill because he “cannot accept our economy, or basically our society, moving towards an entitlement mentality,” his new legislation is more evidence that he privileges rich donors over actual constituents in West Virginia and is truly willing to punish the poor. He’s claimed that families in his state would use money from the Child Tax Credit to buy drugs, that work requirements rather than more resources will lift poor kids out of poverty, and that, as the Huffington Post reported, “Americans would fraudulently use the proposed paid sick leave policy, specifically saying people would feign being sick and go on hunting trips.”

All of this represents a painful return to the “culture of poverty” debates of the 1960s. Indeed, despite being discredited by scholars and poverty experts over and over since its invention, such anti-poor propaganda seems to rear its head whenever popular opinion and public action might actually lead to improvements in the lives of poor and low-income people.

The Culture of Poverty

American anthropologist Oscar Lewis first suggested there was a culture of poverty in the mid-1960s, an idea quickly championed by the political right. Republican administrations from President Ronald Reagan on, buttressed by right-wing groups like the Moral Majority, claimed that the true origins of poverty lay in immoral personal choices and ways of life that led to broken families and terrible life decisions.

Such ideas were particularly appealing to politicians and the wealthy since they identified the causes of poverty not as a problem of society at large, but of the poor themselves. It was, as they saw it, one that lay deep in an “autonomous subculture [that] exists among the poor, one that is self-perpetuating and self-defeating.” To encourage such thinking, they invented and endlessly publicized hyper-racialized caricatures of the poor like the “welfare queen,” while pushing the idea that poor people were lazy, crazy, and stupid. Then they criminalized poverty, while cutting government programs like welfare and public housing — legislative acts guaranteed to harm millions of Americans across multiple generations.

This culture-of-poverty debate and the legislative action to uphold it have become deeply ingrained in this country and not just among conservatives. In 1996, after all, it was the administration of Democratic President Bill Clinton that ended “welfare as we know it,” its officials having armed themselves with tales about the backwardness of the poor and their need to finally take “personal responsibility” for their lives.

A neoliberal approach to governing has had a hold on significant parts of both parties ever since, while structural poverty and inequality have only deepened. The poor have been pathologized so effectively that culture-of-poverty distortions have even made their way into more progressive media and scholarly accounts of their lives. There, too, poor people are often depicted as incapable of analyzing their own situations or understanding the dilemmas they face, let alone engaging in the sort of strategic thinking that might begin to overcome inequality.

Even, for example, those heralded scholars of poor people’s movements, Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, argued that the history of organizing the poor did not originate among the poor themselves. Instead, they suggested that, in the twentieth century, such organizing efforts were “largely stimulated by the federal government through its Great Society programs” and through anti-poverty agencies, civil-rights activists, and student groups. What such a perspective cut out were the struggles of poor and low-income organizers like Johnnie Tillmon of Arkansas and Annie Smart of Louisiana, both poor mothers and important initiators of the welfare rights movement, as well as other twentieth-century campaigns led by the poor to lift the load of poverty.

Leaders like Tillmon and Smart, in fact, helped build organizations that, in the twentieth century, mobilized tens of thousands of the very people those in power and the media all too often blamed for society’s deepest problems. Slogans used decades later by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, the National Welfare Rights Union, and the National Union of the Homeless, to mobilize the poor, like “no housing, no peace,” “you only get what you’re organized to take,” and “each one, teach one, so we can reach one more,” highlighted the latent but all-too-real power found within poor communities, as well as the idea that the poor are themselves capable of being agents of positive social change.

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This last point is especially important because, historically speaking, poor people have struggled over and over again to create a better country not just for themselves, but for everyone. Far from being imprisoned in a culture of poverty and so helpless to act to change their own conditions, the poor throughout U.S. history have shown an ability, often under the worst imaginable conditions, to transform society for the better by fighting for everyone’s right to healthcare, housing, clean water, an adequate education, and so much more.

Nonetheless, victim-blaming narratives that divert attention from the social structures and interests that have created ever more poverty in this century continue to serve a political purpose for the defenders of the status quo. In today’s America, consider Joe Manchin, one among many necromancers who have reanimated the corpse of the long-discredited culture of poverty. In the process, they’ve given a veneer of sophistication to hateful rhetoric and acts against the poor, including the nearly half of West Virginians who are today in poverty or one emergency from economic ruin.

The Death-Dealing Culture of the Rich

In America, instead of recognizing the political agency and moral vision of poor people, it’s generally believed that the rich, entrepreneurial, and powerful have the solutions to our social ills. Indeed, as I’ve written previously at TomDispatch, this society has long suffered from a kind of Stockholm syndrome: we look to the rich for answers to the very problems they’re all-too-often responsible for creating and from which, of course, they benefit immeasurably.

Even as Americans begin to question the ever more enormous divide between the rich and the rest of us, the media narrative lionizes the wealthy. For example, contrast the many pieces celebrating the Gates Foundation’s work around global health with its decision early in the pandemic to pressure Oxford University and AstraZeneca to keep exclusive property rights to their Covid-19 vaccine rather than making it widely available for manufacture around the world. That decision and so many more like it by other wealthy individuals, private corporations, and countries played a significant part in creating the vaccine apartheid that continues to divide the Global North and South (and so prepared the groundwork for new variations of the pandemic among the unvaccinated).

Moreover, our society continues to treat the grievances of the rich as public crises requiring government action, but wounds to the rest of us as the unfortunate result of bad luck or personal failures. This dynamic has been seen during both the Trump and Biden presidencies. In the early weeks of lockdown in 2020, the Federal Reserve, under President Trump, funneled billions of dollars into the coffers of the wealthy. Meanwhile, significant parts of the CARES Act, like the Paycheck Protection Program, directed significant sums to high-income households, while millions were left in the lurch.

A year and half later, bad-faith arguments about inflation and scarcity have been used by Manchin and other “moderate” Democrats to sink the Build Back Better agenda and allow major antipoverty programs like the Child Tax Credit to expire, to the detriment of nearly 75% of its recipients. I say bad faith because you need only look at the $2.1 trillion that America’s billionaires have made during these two pandemic years or the $770 billion Congress had no hesitation allocating for the 2022 Pentagon budget and related expenses to see that such scarcity arguments simply don’t hold water. In reality, the resources are at hand to solve our nation’s most burning crises, if only we had the political will.

Those in power maintain their hold on our collective imagination in part due to the pervasive ideological belief that an economy which benefits the rich will, in a trickle-down fashion, benefit the rest of us. This belief is at the core of the curriculum of most university economics departments across the country. In fact, in America today, it’s largely accepted that a rising economic tide will lift all boats rather than just the yachts of the well-to-do, as many of the rest of us sink all around them.

When, however, nearly half of the U.S. population is already poor or lives one lost paycheck, storm, or medical emergency away from poverty, a national reckoning with the core values and political priorities of our society is an increasing necessity. How sad, then, that the poor continue to be pitted against each other, blamed for their poverty (and many of the country’s other problems), and fed the lie of scarcity in a time of unprecedented abundance.

Poverty Amid Plenty

According to the Supplemental Poverty Measure of the U.S. Census, there are 140 million people of different races, genders, and ages from all over this county who are poor or low-income. It’s not that those 140 million Americans all lack the cultural attributes for success or that most refuse to work or don’t understand how to spend or save money. And they certainly aren’t poor because they haven’t prayed hard enough or God simply ordained it. Rather, it’s time to hear some of the real reasons why people are poor or low-income rather than fall prey to the misrepresentations and falsifications of the culture of poverty.

One reason is because the cost of living in this country has, for decades, outpaced household earnings. As the Poor People’s Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverend William J. Barber II) pointed out in a 2018 report, American workers have seen little or no real growth in their weekly wages for the past 40 years, even as economic productivity has shot up exponentially. Tens of millions of Americans work for less than $15 an hour and so can’t afford basic necessities, including housing, childcare, health care, education, food, and gas — the prices of all of which have outpaced wage growth. Believe it or not, there is no state, metropolitan area, or county in the country today where a full-time, minimum-wage job can support a two-bedroom rental apartment.

One-hundred-and-forty-million people are impoverished, in part because racialized voter suppression and gerrymandering have created unfair elections that keep the poor — especially Black, Latinx, and Native American people — largely out of the democratic process. Between 2010 and 2020, more than 27 states passed racist voter suppression laws and, in 2021, 19 states passed an additional 33 of them. As a consequence, elections are rigged from the start and many extremist politicians, essentially smuggled into office, then govern by suppressing wages while cutting health care and critical social services for the poor of all walks of life. (This is something that leaders, especially Reverend William Barber and the Forward Together Moral Mondays Movement, have been pointing out for years.)

Such widespread deep poverty exists in this country because of ongoing and intensifying attacks on social programs, on full display in recent months. At a moment when ever more people need a strong social safety net, there have been dramatic cuts in federal housing assistance, the public-housing stock, food stamps, and other critical social programs. Today, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program supports less than one in four poor families with children, while federal assistance to local water systems has decreased by 74% over the past 40 years, leading to a crisis of water quality and affordability impacting at least 14 million mostly poor people. Add to this, in the midst of a pandemic, the reality that states are sending back monies set aside to help needy people, even as 3.7 million kids were pushed below the poverty line in January alone.

In addition, more and more Americans are struggling because we have become a debtor nation. With wages stagnating and the cost of living rising, there has been an explosion of debt across the country. And given the already described circumstances, you undoubtedly won’t be surprised to discover that the bottom 90% of Americans hold more than 70% of it, including $1.34 trillion in student debt. In 2016, 24 million American families were living “underwater” (meaning they owed more on their houses than those structures were even worth).

The reality of poverty amid plenty has also grown more widespread and evident because our national priorities have increasingly shifted ever more toward a militarized and toxic war economy. Today, out of every federal discretionary dollar, 53 cents go to our military, while only 15 cents go to anti-poverty programs. This sort of spending has been mirrored in our communities, too, where there has been a tenfold increase in spending on prisons and deportations over the past 40 years. In other words, the criminalization of the poor that began in earnest half a century ago is now in full bloom. To cite one indicative figure that sums this up: since 2000, 95% of the rise in the incarcerated population has been made up of people who can’t afford bail.

In 1967, the year before he was assassinated, while organizing the poor across the country for the Poor People’s Campaign, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., offered a powerful insight that couldn’t be more relevant today. “We are called upon,” he said,

“to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’ These are the words that must be said.”

Indeed, when it comes to who are the poor and why they are poor, it’s time to reject the hateful theories of old and instead answer questions like those.

Copyright 2022 Liz Theoharis


Which Way America? Confronting Christian Nationalism in the Spirit of Desmond Tutu Wed, 12 Jan 2022 05:02:36 +0000 ( – “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The world lost a great moral leader this Christmas when Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away at the age of 90. I had the honor of meeting him a few times as a child. I was raised by a family dedicated to doing the work of justice, grounded in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and also sacred texts and traditions. We hosted the archbishop on several occasions when he visited Milwaukee — both before the end of apartheid and after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed in 1996.

In the wake of one visit, he sent a small postcard that my mom framed and placed on the bookcase near our front door. Every morning before school I would grab my glasses resting on that same bookcase and catch a glimpse of the archbishop’s handwritten note. This wasn’t inadvertent on my mom’s part. It was meant as a visual reminder that, if I was to call myself a Christian — which I did, serving as a Sunday school teacher from the age of 13 and a deacon at 16 — my responsibility was to advocate for policies that welcomed immigrants, freed those held captive by racism and injustice, and lifted the load of poverty.

Given our present context, the timing of his death is all too resonant. Just over a year ago, the world watched as a mob besieged the U.S. Capitol, urged on by still-President Donald Trump and undergirded by decades of white racism and Christian nationalism. January 6th should have reminded us all that far from being a light to all nations, American democracy remains, at best, a remarkably fragile and unfinished project. On the first anniversary of that nightmare, the world is truly in need of moral leaders and defenders of democracy like Tutu.

The archbishop spent his life pointing to what prophets have decried through the ages, warning countries, especially those with much political and economic power, to stop strangling the voices of the poor. Indeed, the counsel of such prophets has always been the same: when injustice is on the rise, there are dark forces waiting to demean, defraud, and degrade human life. Such forces hurt the poor the most but impact everyone. And they often cloak themselves in religious rhetoric, even as they pursue political and economic ends that do anything but match our deepest religious values.

Democracy At Stake

“What has happened to us? It seems as if we have perverted our freedom, our rights into license, into being irresponsible. Perhaps we did not realize just how apartheid has damaged us, so that we seem to have lost our sense of right and wrong.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

By now, lamenting the condition of American democracy comes almost automatically to many of us. Still, the full weight of our current crisis has yet to truly sink in. A year after the attempted insurrection of January 6, 2021, this nation has continued to experience a quieter, rolling coup, as state legislatures have passed the worst voter suppression laws in generations and redrawn political maps to allow politicians to pick whom their voters will be. The Brennan Center for Justice recently reported that more than 400 voter suppression laws were introduced in 49 states last year. Nineteen of those states passed more than 30 such laws, signaling the biggest attack on voting rights since just after the Civil War. And add to that another sobering reality — two presidential elections have now taken place without the full protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

This attack on democracy, if unmet, could alter the nature of American elections for at least a generation to come. And yet, so far, it’s been met with an anemic response from a painfully divided Congress and the Biden administration. Despite much talk about the need to reform democracy, Congress left for the holidays without restoring the Voting Rights Act or passing the For the People Act, which would protect the 55 million voters who live in states with new anti-voter laws that limit access to the ballot. If those bills don’t pass in January (or only a new proposal by Republican senators and Joe Manchin to narrowly reform the Electoral Count Act of 1887 is passed), it may prove to be too late to save our democracy as well as any hopes that the Democratic Party can win the 2022 midterm elections or the 2024 presidential race

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Sadly, this nation has a strikingly bipartisan consensus to thank for such a moral abdication of responsibility. Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, in particular, have been vocal in refusing to overturn the filibuster to protect voting rights (though you know that, were the present Republicans in control of the Senate, they wouldn’t hesitate to do so for their own grim ends).

And of course, democracy isn’t the only thing that demands congressional action (as well as filibuster reform). Workers have not seen a raise in the minimum wage since 2009 and the majority of us have no paid sick leave in the worst public-health crisis in a century. Poor and low-income Americans, 140 million and growing, are desperately in need of the child tax credit and other anti-poverty and basic income programs at precisely the moment when they’re expiring and the pandemic is surging once again. And Manchin has already ensured weakened climate provisions in President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda that he claims he just can’t support (not yet anyway). If things proceed accordingly, in some distant future, sadly enough, geological records will be able to show the impact of our government’s unwillingness to act quickly or boldly enough to save humanity.

As Congress debates voting rights and investing in the people, it’s important to understand the dark forces that underlie the increasingly reactionary and authoritarian politics on the rise in this country. In his own time, Archbishop Tutu examined the system of white-imposed apartheid through the long lens of history to show how the Christianity of colonial empire had become a central spoke in the wheel of violence, theft, and racist domination in South Africa. He often summed up this dynamic through parables like this one: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

In our own American context, they have the Bible and, as things are going, they may soon have the equivalent of “the land,” too. Just look carefully at our political landscape for evidence of the rising influence of white Christian nationalism. While it’s only one feature of the authoritarianism increasingly on vivid display in this country, it’s critical to understand, since it’s helped to mobilize a broad social base for Donald Trump and the Republicans. In the near future, through control over various levers of state and federal power, as well as key cultural and religious institutions, Christian nationalists could find themselves well positioned to shape the nation for a long time to come.

Confronting White Christian Nationalism

“There are very good Christians who are compassionate and caring. And there are very bad Christians. You can say that about Islam, about Hinduism, about any faith. That is why I was saying that it was not the faith per se but the adherent. People will use their religion to justify virtually anything.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Christian nationalism has influenced the course of American politics and policy since the founding of this country, while, in every era, moral movements have had to fight for the Bible and the terrain that goes with it. The January 6th assault on the Capitol, while only the latest expression of such old battlelines, demonstrated the threat of a modern form of Christian nationalism that has carefully built political power in government, the media, the academy, and the military over the past half-century. Today, the social forces committed to it are growing bolder and increasingly able to win mainstream support.

When I refer to “Christian nationalism,” I mean a social force that coalesces around a matrix of interlocking and interrelated values and beliefs. These include at least six key features, though the list that follows is anything but exhaustive:

* First, a highly exclusionary and regressive form of Christianity is the only true and valid religion.

* Second, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity are “the natural order” of the world and must be upheld by public policy (even as Latino Protestants swell the ranks of American evangelicalism and women become important gate-keepers in communities gripped by Christian nationalism).

* Third, militarism and violence, rather than diplomacy and debate, are the correct ways for this country to exert power over other countries (as it is our God-given right to do).

* Fourth, scarcity is an economic reality of life and so we (Americans vs. the world, white people vs. people of color, natural-born citizens vs. immigrants) must compete fiercely and without pity for the greater portion of the resources available.

* Fifth, people already oppressed by systemic violence are actually to blame for the deep social and economic problems of the world — the poor for their poverty, LGBTQIA people for disease and social rupture, documented and undocumented immigrants for being “rapists and murderers” stealing “American” jobs, and so on.

* Sixth, the Bible is the source of moral authority on these (and other) social issues and should be used to justify an extremist agenda, no matter what may actually be contained in the Good Book.

Such ideas, by the way, didn’t just spring up overnight. This false narrative has been playing a significant, if not dominant, role in our politics and economics for decades. Since childhood — for an example from my own life — I’ve regularly heard people use the Bible to justify poverty and inequality. They quote passages like “the poor you will always have with you” to argue that poverty is inevitable and can never be ended. Never mind the irony that the Bible has been one of the only forms of the mass media — if you don’t mind my calling it that — which has had anything good to say about the poor (something those in power have tried to cover up since the days of slavery).

In many poor communities — rural, small town, and urban — churches are among the only lasting social institutions and so one of the most significant battlegrounds for deciding which moral values will shape our society, especially the lives of the needy. Indeed, churches are the first stop for many people struggling with poverty. The vast majority of food pantries and other emergency assistance programs are run out of them and much of the civic work going on in churches is motivated by varying interpretations of the Bible when it comes to poverty. These range from outright disdain and pity to charity to more proactive advocacy and activism for the poor.

Geographically, the battle for the Bible manifests itself most intensely in the Deep South, although hardly confined to that region, perhaps as a direct inheritance of theological fights dating back to slavery. For example, although there are more churches per capita than in any other state and high rates of attendance, Mississippi also has the highest child poverty rate, the least funding for education and social services for the needy, and ranks lowest in the country when it comes to overall health and wellness. It’s noteworthy that this area is known as both the “Bible Belt” and the “Poverty Belt.”

This is possible, in part, because the Bible has long been used as a tool of domination and division, while Christian theology has generally been politicized to identify poverty as a consequence of sin and individual failure. Thanks to the highly militarized rhetoric that goes with such a version of Christianity, adherents are also called upon to defend the “homeland,” even as their religious doctrine is used to justify violence against the most marginalized in society. These are the currents of white Christian nationalism that have been swelling and spreading for years across the country.

A moral movement from below

We live in a moral universe. You know this. All of us know this instinctively. The perpetrators of injustice know this. This is a moral universe. Right and wrong do matter. Truth will out in the end. No matter what happens. No matter how many guns you use. No matter how many people get killed. It is an inexorable truth that freedom will prevail in the end, that injustice and repression and violence will not have the last word.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

In the Poor People’s Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverend William Barber II), we identify Christian nationalism as a key pillar of injustice in America that provides cover for a host of other ills, including systemic racism, poverty, climate change, and militarism. To combat it, we believe it’s necessary to build a multiracial moral movement that can speak directly to the needs and aspirations of poor and dispossessed Americans and fuse their many struggles into one.

This theory of change is drawn from our study of history. The most transformative American movements have always relied on generations of poor people, deeply affected by injustice, coming together across dividing lines of all kinds to articulate a new moral vision for the nation. This has also meant waging a concerted battle for the moral values of society, whether you’re talking about the pre-Civil War abolition movement, the Populist Movement of the late nineteenth century, labor upsurges of the 1930s and 1940s, or the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Today, to grasp the particular history and reality of America means recognizing the need for a new version of just such a movement to contend directly with the ideology and theology of Christian nationalism and offer an alternative that meets the material and spiritual needs of everyday people.

Archbishop Tutu was clear that injustice and heretical Christianity should never have the last word and that the world’s religious and faith traditions still have much to offer when it comes to building a sense of unity that’s in such short supply in a country apparently coming apart at the seams. At the moment, unfortunately, too many people, including liberals and progressives, sidestep any kind of religious and theological debate, leaving that to those they consider their adversaries, and focusing instead on matters of policy. But as Archbishop Tutu’s deeds and words have shown, to change our world and bring this nation to higher ground means being brave enough to wrestle with both the politics and the soul of the nation — which, in reality, are one and the same.

Copyright 2022 Liz Theoharis


The Politics of the Poor in an America on Edge: Lifting from the Bottom So Everyone Can Rise Mon, 08 Nov 2021 05:08:10 +0000 ( ) – When President Biden first unveiled the Build Back Better agenda, it appeared that this country was on the path to a new war on poverty. In April, he told Congress that “trickle-down economics have never worked” and that it was time to build the economy “from the bottom-up.” This came after the first reconciliation bill of the pandemic included the child tax credit that — combined with an expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, and other emergency programs — reduced the poverty rate from 13.9% in 2018 to 7.7% in 2021. (Without such actions, it was estimated that the poverty rate might have risen to 23.1%.) All eyes are now on the future of this Build Back Better plan, whether it will pass and whether it will include paid sick leave, reduced prescription drug prices, expanded child tax credits, expanded earned income tax credits for those without children, universal pre-K, climate resilience and green jobs, and other important domestic policy investments.

For months, the nation has witnessed a debate taking place in Congress over how much to invest in this plan. What hasn’t been discussed, however, is the cost of not investing (or not investing sufficiently) in health-care expansion, early childhood education, the care economy, paid sick leave, living-wage jobs, and the like. Similarly missing have been the voices of those affected, especially the 140 million poor and low-income people who have the most to lose if a bold bill is not passed. By now, the originally proposed 10-year, $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, which a majority of Americans support, has been slowly chiseled down to half that size. For that you can largely thank two Democratic senators, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, unanimously backed by Donald Trump’s Republican Party, which would, of course, cut everything.

Because of them, the “reconciliation” process to pass such a bill has become so crucial and politically charged, given that the same obstructionist Democrats have continued to uphold the Senate filibuster. All year, Manchin, Sinema, and the Republicans have blocked action on urgent issues ranging from climate change and immigration reform to living wages and voting rights. For example, after months of resistance to the For the People Act, a bill that protects and expands voting rights, Manchin forced the Democrats to put forward a watered-down Freedom To Vote Act with the promise that he would get it passed. In late October, though, he failed to win a single Republican vote for the bill and so the largest assault on voting rights since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era continues, state by state, unabated.

President Biden’s original Build Back Better plan was successfully caricatured as too big and expensive, even though it represented just 1.2% of gross domestic product over the next decade and Congress had just passed a bipartisan single-year Pentagon budget nearly double the annual cost of BBB. In reality, $3.5 trillion over a decade would be no more than a start on what’s actually needed to rescue the economy, genuinely alleviating poverty and human suffering, while making real strides toward addressing the climate crisis. Instead, cuts to, and omissions from, the reconciliation bill will mean nearly two million fewer jobs per year and 37 million children prevented from getting needed aid, while leaving trillions of dollars raked in by the super rich in the pandemic moment untaxed. Perhaps it will also fall disastrously short when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the level necessary on the timetable called for by the world’s scientific community.

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Much of the recent coverage of these dynamics has focused on what all of this could mean for the Democrats in the 2022 elections (especially givenVirginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s loss in a state that President Biden won by 10 points). With low approval ratings, striking numbers of retiring members of Congress and increasingly gerrymandered voting maps, as well as outright voter-suppression laws, the Democratic faithful have reason to be worried. Still, what’s missing from such discussions is how bad things already are for tens of millions of Americans and just how much worse they could get without far bolder government action. It’s true that the 2022 elections could resemble the 2010 midterm elections when Republicans broke President Obama’s grip on Congress, winning control of the House of Representatives, but too few observers are grappling with the possibility that 2022 could also reproduce conditions of a sort not experienced since the Great Recession.

As our second pandemic-winter approaches, there are many signs of an economy entering crisis. Economists are warning that despite an employment bump thanks to direct government intervention, we may already be entering a recession that could, sooner or later, prove at least as severe as the Great Recession of 2008. The expectations of everyday Americans certainly seem to reflect this simmering possibility. Consumer confidence has dropped to the second lowest level since 2011 and holiday spending among low-income Americans is expected to fall 22% from last year. (The 11.5% of all shoppers who say they won’t spend anything at all on gifts or services this holiday is the highest in a decade.)

As has been true throughout the pandemic, millions of people abandoned by the government will do whatever they can to provide for themselves and their communities. They will try to care for one another, share what they have, and come together through mutual-aid networks. Their resources alone, however, are anything but adequate. Instead, as conditions potentially worsen, such survival struggles should be seen as beachheads when it comes to organizing a largely untapped base of people who need to be awakened politically if any kind of lasting change is to be realized. These millions of poor and low-income Americans will be critical in creating the kind of broad movement able to make, as Martin Luther King once put it, “the power structure say yes when they really may be desirous of saying no.”

The Greatest Threat or Our Best Hope?

Keep in mind that the survival struggles of the poor and dispossessed have long been both a spark and a cornerstone for social, political, and economic change in ways seldom grasped in this country. This was true in pre-Civil War America, when hundreds of thousands of enslaved people smuggled themselves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, forcing the nation to confront the horrors of slavery in person and igniting a movement to end it. It was no less true in the 1930s, when the hungry and out-of-work began organizing unemployment councils and tenant-farmer unions before President Franklin Roosevelt even launched the New Deal. The same could be said of the decades before the Civil Rights Movement, when Black communities began organizing themselves against lynch mobs and other forms of state-sanctioned (or state-complicit) violence.

Another example was the transformative work of the Black Panther Party, whose legacy still impacts our political life, even if the image of the party remains distorted by myths, misrepresentations, and racist fearmongering. This October marked the 55th anniversary of its founding. For many Americans, its enduring image is still of ominous looking men in black berets and leather jackets carrying guns. But most of their time was spent meeting the needs of their community and building a movement that could transform life for poor Black people.

In a recent interview, Fredericka Jones, a Black Panther herself and the widow of the party’s co-founder, Huey Newton, explained that among their projects,

“the most famous and most notable would be the free breakfast the Panthers offered to thousands of children in Oakland and other cities, providing basic nutrition for kids from poor families, long before the government took on this responsibility. We knew that children could not learn if they were hungry, but we also had free clinics. We had free clothing. We had a service called SAFE (Seniors Against a Fearful Environment) where we would escort seniors to the bank, or, you know, to do their grocery shopping. We had a free ambulance program in North Carolina. Black people were dying because the ambulance wouldn’t even come and pick them up.”

Before his murder in 1989, Newton himself characterized their work this way:

“The Black Panther Party was doing what the government should’ve done. We were providing these basic survival programs, as we called them, for the Black community and oppressed communities, when the government wasn’t doing it. The government refused to, so the community loved the Party. And that was not what you saw in the media. You didn’t see brothers feeding kids. You saw a picture of a brother who was looking menacing with a gun.”

As Newton pointed out, the Panthers bravely stepped into the void left by the government to feed, educate, and care for communities. But they were also clear that their survival programs were not just about meeting immediate needs. For one thing, they purposefully used those programs to highlight the failures of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the contradictions between America’s staggering wealth and its staggering poverty and racism, which existed side by side and yet in separate universes. In those years, the Panthers quite consciously tried to shine a light on the grim paradox of a nation that claimed there was never enough money to fight poverty at home, even as it spent endless billions of dollars fighting a war on the poor in Southeast Asia.

Their programs also gave them a base of operations from which to organize new people into a human-rights movement, which meant that all of their community work would be interwoven with political education, highly visible protest, cultural organizing, and a commitment to sustaining leaders for the long haul. While deeply rooted in poor black urban communities, the Panthers both inspired and linked up to similar efforts by Latino and poor-white organizations.

These were, of course, the most treacherous of waters. At the time, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI listed the Black Panthers and their breakfast program as “the greatest threat to internal security in the country.” Government officials recognized that such organizing could potentially catch fire across far wider groups of poor Americans at a moment when the War on Poverty was being dismantled and the age of neoliberal economics was already on the rise. In such a context, the ability of the Panthers to put the abandonment of poor Black people under a spotlight, unite leaders within their community, and develop relationships with other poor people across racial lines seemed like a weapon potentially more powerful than the guns they carried.

I wrote recently about the often-overlooked successes of the National Union of the Homeless, which organized tens of thousands of homeless people across the country in the 1980s and 1990s. Its success came, in part, through lessons its leaders drew from the experiences of the Panthers, something they acknowledged at the time. In fact, they called the key strategic ingredients for their work the “Six Panther Ps” (program, protest, projects of survival, publicity work, political education, and “plans, not personalities”), organizing building blocks that they considered inseparable from one other.

At the time, the Homeless Union opened its own shelters and led takeovers of vacant houses in the possession of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These were their “projects of survival.” Through them, they secured housing and other resources for their leaders, loudly called into question why there were more empty houses nationally than homeless people, and forged unlikely alliances and political relationships.

More than 20 years later, homeless leaders have revived the National Union and are now making preparations for a winter organizing offensive on the streets and in encampments, shelters, and vacant homes across the country. As life-saving eviction moratoriums continue to expire nationwide, such projects of survival become shining examples of how poor and low-income people can begin to build a movement to end poverty.

Waking the Sleeping Giant

Last month, the Poor People’s Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverand William Barber) released a new report on the unheralded impact of poor and low-income Americans in the 2020 elections. Contrary to the popular belief that poor people don’t participate in elections and are apathetic about politics, it shows that poor and low-income voters made up at least 20% of the total electorate in 45 states, and up to 40% of them in nearly all of the battleground states. Although we don’t know who those voters cast their ballots for, based on the state numbers it’s highly likely that Joe Biden and down-ballot Democrats won a significant percentage of them.

The report also examines the racial composition of those voters in key battleground states, revealing that poor folks turned out across race, including a large percentage of poor-white voters. This is significant, since their overall vote share throws into question the knee-jerk idea that poor white voters are a key part of Donald Trump’s base. The data also suggests that it’s possible to form multiracial coalitions of poor and low-income voters, if brought together around a political agenda that speaks to their shared needs and concerns.

The most important takeaway from the report: poor and low-income voters are a sleeping giant whose late-night stirrings are already impacting elections and who, if fully awakened, could transform the political calculus of elections to come. The question, then, is how to awaken those millions of suffering, struggling Americans in a way that galvanizes them around a vision of lifting the country from the bottom up, so that everyone — billionaires aside — can rise.

The first part of the answer, I’d suggest, is beginning within poor communities themselves, especially places where people are already taking life-saving action. The other part of the answer is finding new and creative ways to connect the survival strategies and projects of the poor to a wider movement that can move people beyond survival and toward building and wielding political power.

On this topic of power-building, Martin Luther King’s words again ring true today. In “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community,” he wrote:

“Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strength into compelling power so that government cannot elude our demands. We must develop, from strength, a situation in which the government finds it wise and prudent to collaborate with us.”

Yes, it’s once again time for poor and low-income people to come together across issues and lines of division, challenging the tired, yet still hegemonic narrative that blames them for their poverty, pits groups of them against each other, and feeds the lie of scarcity. Perhaps the Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers Assembly and Moral March on Washington planned for the nation’s capital on June 18, 2022, will signal the building of just such a new political powerhouse before the midterm elections.

Indeed, the response of those elected to serve all the people in a historic hour of need suggests that there is much work still to be done. But if in the months to come, you stop for a moment and feel the earth beneath your feet, you might just sense the rumblings of a giant electorate of poor and low-income agents of social change waking from its slumber.

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis

Featured image: Poor People’s Campaign by cool revolution is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr

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The Land of the Free, Where So Many of the Brave Are Homeless: Resisting Evictions Amid a Pandemic Fri, 17 Sep 2021 04:04:06 +0000 ( – Over the past weeks, multiple crises have merged: a crisis of democracy with the most significant attack on voting rights since Reconstruction; a climate crisis with lives and livelihoods upended in the Gulf Coast and the Northeast by extreme weather events and in the West by a stunning fire season; and an economic crisis in which millions are being cut off from Pandemic Unemployment Insurance, even as August job gains proved underwhelming. There’s also a crisis taking place in state legislatures with an ongoing attack on women’s autonomy over our own bodies. The Supreme Court let a law go into effect that makes abortions nearly impossible in Texas and turns its enforcement over to vigilantes. And then, of course, there’s the looming eviction crisis that could precipitate the worst housing and homelessness disaster in American history.

Indeed, the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Texas abortion ban was hardly its only horrific decision this summer. Its willingness to end a moratorium on evictions instantly put hundreds of thousands of people at risk of eviction, with tens of millions more in danger in the weeks to come. With an unequal economic recovery, surging Covid-19 cases (thanks to the highly infectious Delta variant), and poor and homeless people disproportionately suffering the effects of fires and floods, this decision could truly prove catastrophic. Nor is it the only one likely to impact poor and low-income communities of color drastically. That stacked court, the Trump court (if you want to think of it that way), is offering a remarkably vivid demonstration of just how connected voting rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, and poverty really are.

President Biden critiqued the Supreme Court recently for its ruling on the Texas abortion case. “For the majority to do this without a hearing, without the benefit of an opinion from a court below, and without due consideration of the issues,” he said, “insults the rule of law and the rights of all Americans to seek redress from our courts.” And as continued injustices, especially from that court’s “shadow docket,” have come to light, former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, now head of the American Constitution Society, tweeted, “SCOTUS’s increasing use of the shadow docket to issue massive legal decisions is yet another reason why Supreme Court reform needs to be taken seriously.”

​In reality, the Supreme Court is an institution of minority rule. According to Ari Berman, a voting-rights expert and journalist who has tracked that court for years, “A majority of conservative Supreme Court justices were appointed by GOP presidents who initially lost the popular vote and confirmed by senators representing a minority of the population.” As he’s also pointed out, “No one has benefited more from minority rule — and done more to ensure it — than Mitch McConnell.”

After all, McConnell blocked President Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court on the flimsy pretext that it was too close to an election, only to ram through Donald Trump’s pick just eight days before the 2020 election when 65 million votes had already been cast. What this amounts to is simple enough: a Supreme Court that doesn’t represent the opinions or values of the majority of Americans.

As a biblical scholar and Christian pastor, I find the words of the Bible particularly relevant in a moment like this. Proverbs 22 reads, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case.”

In these ever-less United States, of course, it’s not only the Supreme Court that doesn’t respect the rights of the poor. Consider housing and the lower courts. In recent studies of landlord-tenant court cases in states across the country, landlords typically won 95% of eviction cases in Oklahoma and Hawaii and, in 2017, 99.7% percent of those in Kansas City. According to the ACLU, ​​”Eviction proceedings historically have been unfair and imbalanced. In the courts, the odds are stacked against tenants: 90% of landlords are represented by legal counsel in evictions, but fewer than 10% of tenants have representation.”

Eviction in a Pandemic

Recently, as Ivana Saric pointed out at Axios, a new report from Goldman Sachs predicted significant hardship because of the way the Supreme Court upended the moratorium on evictions. As she wrote, “Roughly 2.5 million to 3.5 million American households are behind on their rents… They owe landlords between $12 billion and $17 billion… Evictions are likely to be ‘particularly pronounced in the cities hardest hit’ by Covid-19 because they have stronger apartment rental markets.”

Even more dire, reports CNBC, “The coronavirus pandemic could result in some 28 million Americans being evicted… By comparison, 10 million people lost their homes in the Great Recession.” These predictions come, in part, from Emily Benfer, the chair of the American Bar Association’s Task Force Committee on Eviction and co-creator with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University of the Covid-19 Housing Policy Scorecard. As she points out, “We have never seen this extent of eviction in such a truncated amount of time in our history.”

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Add to that something else: this eviction crisis is happening at a moment when there’s already an existing population of 8 to 11 million homeless Americans who have only been thrown into a deeper set of crises during this seemingly never-ending pandemic. Although some homeless families received relief during the pandemic, homeless assistance funding was based on a count of only half a million homeless Americans and so, was woefully inadequate. Worse yet, sweeps and evictions of homeless encampments continued even during this crisis, while the limited protections won by housing activists — including, in some places, hotel rooms for those previously living on the street or in shelters — have, in many cases, been rolled back.

To put the eviction moratorium in perspective: Initially, it was instituted as part of the CARES Act that Congress passed in March 2020. Although limited in its reach and scope, it did indeed protect hundreds of thousands of people from homelessness at a moment when, in some places, landlords were flocking to eviction court in the middle of a pandemic to get rid of tenants. The CARES moratorium expired in July 2020. That September, in the absence of any further Congressional action, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stepped in to extend the moratorium to December 31st as a public-health measure to prevent an even greater spread of the virus. Then, in January of this year, the moratorium was extended by the new Congress until July when the CDC again intervened to extend it through October 3rd at least in areas where pandemic cases were high.

Many are familiar with the stand Congresswoman Cori Bush took in early August when the congressional moratorium expired. As someone who had experienced homelessness herself, she camped out on the steps of the Capitol to call attention to the looming housing disaster. Her actions, combined with powerful organizing by grassroots groups, called attention to the eviction crisis, but more is now needed.

The average household debt burden has only grown during the pandemic and no legislative action has been taken to relieve such a rent or housing crisis. The stimulus payments, unemployment insurance, and an expanded child tax credit were simply not enough. As a result, more than 10 million households are now estimated to be behind on their rent. Rather than bailing out renters and homeowners by canceling such debts or even efficiently distributing the $45 billion in rental assistance that has largely languished in a bureaucratic hell, Congress failed to extend the eviction moratorium, paving the way for disaster.

Homeless, Not Helpless

Over more than 40 years, while a crisis of homelessness has exploded, a narrative has been popularized that sees it largely through stereotypes. For a wealthy elite that’s advanced a generation of neoliberal reforms, it’s been critical to cast homelessness in this way — as an aberration on the margins of an otherwise healthy society, rather than as a startlingly visible indictment of a political and economic order in which homelessness and poverty are at the very core of society.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, major structural shifts in the global economy were accompanied by deep tax cuts, the deregulation of banking and the financial markets, the privatization of public utilities and services, and anti-labor measures. In the midst of all this, homelessness grew, as the government demolished public housing while investing in private urban development projects that fueled gentrification and pushed poor families from their homes.

Up from the streets and out of the shelters, poor and homeless people began organizing themselves into communities of mutual-aid and solidarity. In just a few years, the National Union of the Homeless (NUH) broke into the national narrative, challenging the prevailing notion that its members were poor and homeless because of bad personal decisions and moral failures in their family lives. Instead, they targeted the systems and structures that produced their poverty.

Recently, images of the flooding of Tompkins Square Park when what was left of Hurricane Ida hit downtown New York City received significant attention. Over the summer, the number of homeless people living in that park increased strikingly and neighbors began organizing mutual-aid projects to help the unhoused. Such conditions and projects of survival connect this particular moment to the past — specifically to a time decades ago when homeless and formerly homeless organizers from Tompkins Square first helped form the National Union of the Homeless. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the NUH would organize 25 chapters in cities across the United States representing thousands of homeless people. Its slogans then included “Tompkins Square Everywhere,” “No housing, no peace,” and “You only get what you’re organized to take” — and they still resonate today.

The NUH was known for coordinating housing takeovers: those lacking housing moved into abandoned, government-owned dwellings in a politicized and organized way. The spectacle of homeless people directly challenging public property in the name of survival was striking. In fact, in the 1980s and 1990s, these bold actions resulted in the union winning the right of the homeless to vote, setting up housing programs run by the un-housed themselves in nearly a dozen cities, and so shifting the national narrative on poverty and homelessness.

In the midst of the present pandemic and the eviction crisis that now goes with it, the National Union of the Homeless is taking to the streets again. Indeed, its leaders know that it will take the concerted action of the poor and dispossessed continually putting pressure on the powers that be for the legislature and courts to do what’s right.

After all, history shows that social transformation happens when those most impacted by injustice band together with people from all walks of life and build the political will to push through change. Perhaps this is what Abraham Lincoln meant when he said, “Public sentiment is everything. With it, you can accomplish almost everything. Without it, practically nothing.” It’s what the Reverend Martin Luther King emphasized in 1968 shortly before his death. “Power for poor people,” he said, “will really mean having the ability, the togetherness, the assertiveness and the aggressiveness to make the power structure of this nation say yes when they may be desirous to say no.”

How Congress Must Act

I started working with the National Union of the Homeless and other organizations led by the poor in the early 1990s. It was about the time that spell check became commonplace on personal computers. I remember then writing papers and articles on homelessness, which was growing rapidly at the time. But as the word wasn’t yet in the spell-check dictionary, my computer tried endlessly to correct me. One reason for that: economic homelessness — people being downsized from their jobs or paid too little to pay their rent — was then a relatively new phenomenon in this country. In the last three decades, however, it’s grown so commonplace that most of us consider it both age-old and inevitable.

So, it’s worth saying what should be but isn’t obvious: that poverty, eviction, and homelessness are not eternal, that life truly does not have to be this way. Although in the recent eviction-moratorium debacle the Supreme Court, Congress, and the White House have all tried to shift the blame elsewhere, solutions do exist to address deep-seated, as well as emergency-induced, poverty and deprivation. After all, the very existence of a moratorium on evictions proves that ending them is possible.

The Supreme Court rationalized its decision by claiming that the CDC had overstepped its authority and that it was up to Congress to resolve the eviction crisis through legislative action. In its majority opinion, the judges highlighted the “irreparable harm” suffered not by the poor but by the association of realtors that brought the case. They wrote, “As harm to the [realtor’s association] has increased, the Government’s interests [in maintaining the moratorium] have decreased.”

Of course, the genuine irreparable harm suffered in this moment by millions of families facing eviction in a country that has more abandoned houses than homeless people should be obvious. At the same time, a court that increasingly denies people the right to vote and women the right to health care and control over their own bodies should be the definition of “harm.” A government more interested in placating the real estate industry than ensuring that its people are housed should be challenged.

In fact, at this very moment, grassroots groups have come forward with solutions to just such harm. We would do well to attend to them. They include:

  • Making evictions from any dwelling, including cars, tents, and encampments, illegal.
  • Canceling the housing and rental debt that has been accumulated during the moratorium period.
  • Ending predatory speculation that raises rents and makes housing unaffordable in every state in the country.
  • Ensuring living wages and a guaranteed income so every American can afford a decent place to live.
  • Protecting and expanding voting rights including for the poor, homeless, disabled, and elderly so people have the right to vote officials into office who will represent the interests of the unhoused, the temporarily housed, and those facing evictions.
  • Ending the Senate filibuster that’s preventing the passage of bold and visionary policies, including the expansion of health care, the raising of wages, the introduction of new anti-poverty programs, and so much more.

Those facing eviction, those underpaid and excluded, and many of the 140 million people who are poor and low-income can’t wait for those in power to act (if they ever do). Grassroots efforts like the National Union of the Homeless, Housing Justice for All, Cancel the Rents, Homes Guarantee, and other networks promoting rent strikes and eviction resistance will continue to organize to ensure that all Americans have a place to live, thrive, and build the sort of society we know is possible.

In early September, the National Union of the Homeless put out a statement for Labor Day in which they wrote:

“Our Union members include autoworkers who spent decades on the assembly lines only to end up in the soup line, who built cars only to end up sleeping in them. Our members include former construction workers and farmworkers who provided real homes and grew food for the world but now can’t afford to buy or pay rent in the houses they built or buy the food they harvested…

“We challenge the false narrative, the mythology that we are an ‘underclass,’ a dredge on society, helpless, deserving only pity or scorn, to be corralled into mass congregant shelters (read: homeless internment camps), and pushed into the ‘Homeless Management Information System’ just to get a few crumbs at the cost of our dignity and our political rights… We reject the false narrative that our plight is the result of our ‘bad choices’ when it’s really about a system that builds for the rich at the expense of the poor, where everyone who works for a living is only one paycheck, one family medical crisis, one eviction away from becoming homeless… Together we can survive today to build a new, fair, and equitable world tomorrow.”

May it be so.

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis


Generations of Struggle: Lessons on Defending Democracy Thu, 12 Aug 2021 04:02:44 +0000 By Liz Theoharis | –

( ) – My father, Athan G. Theoharis, passed away on July 3rd. A leading expert on the FBI, he was responsible for exposing the bureau’s widespread abuses of power. He was a loyal husband, dedicated father, scholar, civil libertarian, and voting-rights advocate with an indefatigable commitment to defending democracy. He schooled his children (and anyone who would listen, including scholars, journalists, and activists from a striking variety of political perspectives) to understand one thing above all: how hard the powers-that-be will work to maintain that power and how willing they are to subvert democracy in the process. His life is a reminder that much of American politics in 2021 is, in so many ways, nothing new.

He grew up poor in Milwaukee, the son of an undocumented Greek immigrant who ran a diner out of the first floor of his home. He returned to his hometown in 1969 as a professor of American history at Marquette University. There, he would take part in political campaigns and local democratic efforts and, of course, raise my siblings and me. After he retired as a professor — committed as he was to opening up space for new scholars and researchers — he remained involved with the Wisconsin ACLU and its campaigns to protect democracy and civil liberties. He became the chair of the board and (how appropriate given this moment of voter-suppression laws) worked to oppose the 2011 Wisconsin voter ID law, while aiding the recall campaign against then-Governor Scott Walker.

Although it seems long ago, in many ways that battle over democracy in America’s Dairyland set the scene for the Trump years and the national crisis unfolding around us now. In 2010, Wisconsin Republicans, fueled in part by a rising Tea Party Movement and having gained control of the state legislature and governorship, immediately passed a host of anti-democratic laws, while instituting regressive economic policies. This in a state that had once been a beacon of American democratic experimentation.

As anyone who visited our family would have learned on a driving tour my parents loved to offer, Milwaukee had a first-class park system because of its (rare) history of socialist mayors. Although Wisconsin was also home to that notorious anti-communist of the 1950s Senator Joseph McCarthy, and also the John Birch Society, it had striking progressive roots. However, in 2011, at a hearing on the state Senate’s version of that voter ID law, one political-science expert testified that “this version of the bill is more restrictive than any bill we’ve had in the past… Indeed, if this bill passes, it would be the most restrictive in the United States.”

That same year, a major campaign to recall Governor Walker began, partially in response to an “austerity budget” aimed at poor Wisconsinites. It would slash pensions and health benefits for public-sector workers and impose new statewide restrictions on union collective bargaining. When that budget was first introduced, Democratic legislators — and this should sound familiar, given recent events in Texas — fled the state to stave off a vote in its senate, while thousands of protestors besieged the capitol building in Madison. For a moment, Wisconsin commanded the attention of the nation.

That recall campaign unfolded over 18 long, bitter months, with Walker eventually holding onto his governorship. Mitt Romney, then on the presidential campaign trail, lauded him for his “sound fiscal policies” and swore that his victory over the recall would “echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin.” And he was right.

More than just a win for a beleaguered politician, the Wisconsin experience signaled a growing anti-democratic strain within the Republican Party and American politics coupled with an extreme economic ideology that benefited the rich and powerful. Even then — in the years when Donald Trump was no more than a businessman and TV show host — that ideology was already masquerading as populism. And in doing so, it echoed the development of so-called welfare reform more than a decade earlier, when former Governor Tommy Thompson’s “Wisconsin model” laid the basis for ending welfare as Americans knew it.

My father watched the fallout from these events with grave concern. For more than 50 years, he had researched and exposed how the FBI’s surveillance programs threatened civil liberties and weakened democratic expression. He knew what was possible when the levers of government power were in the wrong hands and recognized the emergence of the attack on democracy earlier than most. He taught us that wherever you were was ground zero when it came to voting rights and, sadly enough, the truth of this has only become clearer since his passing. Indeed, right now, amid a wave of voter suppression laws unseen since Reconstruction and the continued obstructionism in Congress, the fight for democracy is everywhere and, whether we like it or not, we’re all on the frontlines now.

A Multi-Racial Democracy from Below

American history is punctuated by eras of dramatic democratic expansion but also of backlash, especially in response to any encouragement of a multiracial electorate coming together to lift society from the bottom up. In the wake of the Civil War, Reconstruction was a first great elaboration of American democracy. To this day, it remains the most radical experiment in popular government since the founding of the republic. After 250 years of slavery, the share of Black men eligible to vote across the South jumped from 0.5% in 1866 to 80.5% just two years later. In many of the former Confederate states, this, in turn, at least briefly inaugurated a sea change in political representation. In 1868, for instance, 33 Black state legislators were elected in Georgia.

Alongside those newly emancipated and enfranchised voters were many poor white sharecroppers and tenant farmers who, in the rubble of the slavocracy, were ready to exercise real political power for the first time. In a number of state legislatures, fusion coalitions of Blacks and poor whites advanced visionary new policies from the expansion of labor and healthcare rights to education reform. The development of public education was particularly significant for the four million Blacks just then emerging from slavery, as well as for poor whites who had been all but barred from school by the former white ruling elite.

If Reconstruction could be called a second American revolution, the Southern aristocracy and the Democratic Party of that era would soon enough set off a vicious counterrevolution, bloody in both word and deed. A violent divide-and-conquer campaign led by informally state-sanctioned paramilitary groups, especially the newly created Ku Klux Klan (headed by a former Confederate general) terrorized Blacks and whites. Meanwhile, those fusion state governments were broken up and, even though the 15th Amendment couldn’t be repealed, new voter suppression laws were implemented, including poll taxes, lengthened residency requirements, and literacy tests.

What’s often left out of this story is that many of those tactics had first been perfected in the North in response to waves of immigrants from Europe and beyond. Between the Civil War and World War I, 25 million people emigrated to this country. In many Northern states, this rising population of foreign-born, urban poor seemed to threaten the political status quo. As a result, nativist and anti-poor voter suppression laws, including new registration requirements, property stipulations, and voter-roll purges spread widely across the North. For years, white Southern reactionaries studied and borrowed from such anti-democratic trailblazing in states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

Reflecting on this record, historian Gregory Downs has written that “when Americans treat voter disfranchisement as a regional, racial exception, they sustain their faith that the true national story is one of progressive expansion of voter rights. But turn-of-the-20th-century disfranchisement was not a regional or a racial story; it was a national one.” Then as now, it was about protecting the power of a class of wealthy, white Americans in the face of an urge from below for a multiracial democracy.

Echoes from that era could be heard half a century later in the reaction of Republicans and Southern Democrats to the Civil Rights Movement. In the South, since Jim Crow voter suppression had disenfranchised entire generations of Blacks, disproportionately living in poverty, civil-rights reforms threatened what some saw as a “natural social order.” Elsewhere across the country, fears arose that legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would empower poor people across the board. Two Republican congressmen from Michigan and Indiana, for instance, introduced a sham alternative to it that would have allowed states to use literacy tests in election season, a time-honored proxy for restricting the votes of the poor.

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Such extremist politicians typically — and it should still sound all too familiar today — couched their opposition to the Voting Rights Act in terms of ensuring “voter integrity” and preventing “voter fraud.” Beneath such rhetoric, of course, lay an underlying fear of what broad democratic participation could mean for their political and economic interests. During his governorship of California in the late 1960s, Ronald Reagan first began connecting mass enfranchisement and welfare with the specter of poor people destroying American democracy. His future staffer Pat Buchanan highlighted a growing consensus in the Republican Party when he said, “The saving grace of the GOP in national elections has been the political apathy, the lethargy, of the welfare class. It simply does not bother to register to vote.”

President Reagan’s hyper-racialized caricature of the “welfare queen” has endured all these decades later, cementing the lie that the poor don’t care about democracy and stoking fears of a changing multiracial electorate. And while it may be true that a sizable portion of eligible poor and low-income voters don’t vote, it’s not because of indifference. Indeed, a recent report from the Poor People’s Campaign, which I co-chair, shows that typical reasons for lower voter participation among the poor are illness, disability, time and transportation issues, and a basic belief that too few politicians speak to their needs, ensuring that their votes simply don’t matter. This last point is especially important because, as the voter suppression tactics of the previous century have evolved into present-day full-scale attacks on voting rights, their concerns have proven anything but unfounded.

The Chaos We Have Sown

In 2013, in Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down the Section 5 preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act. That section had placed certain districts with histories of racist voter suppression under federal jurisdiction, requiring them to submit to the Department of Justice any planned changes in their voting laws. Since then, there’s been a deluge of voter-suppression laws across the country.

After a multi-racial coalition of voters elected America’s first Black president, 2011 stood as the modern watershed for voter suppression with 19 restrictive laws passed in 14 states. (Barack Obama would nevertheless be reelected the next year.) Today, we’re at a new low point. Six months into 2021, a total of nearly 400 laws meant to obstruct the right to vote have been introduced across the country. So far, 18 states, ranging from Alabama and Arkansas to Texas, Utah, and Wyoming, have passed 30 of them, including an omnibus bill signed into law in Georgia in March. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, it “targets Black voters with uncanny accuracy.”

At this very moment, one major front in the battle over voting rights is still unfolding in Texas. There, the state Senate recently passed a massive “voter integrity” bill that would, among other things, ban 24-hour and drive-through voting, add new ID requirements, and criminalize election workers who don’t follow the onerous new rules. The bill would also grant new powers to partisan poll watchers, raising the possibility of far-right militia groups legally monitoring polling stations. Texas House Democrats fled the state before a vote could be introduced and now remain in Washington, D.C., in exile, awaiting the end of the special session called by Republican Governor Greg Abbott and possible federal action.

Those state legislators arrived in D.C. the same day President Biden gave a national address in Philadelphia on voting rights. His rhetoric was certainly impassioned, and he has since affirmed his support for both the For the People Act and for restoring the full power of the Voting Rights Act, which would indeed expand access to the ballot, while placing more political power in the hands of people of color and the poor. And yet he has offered little when it comes to developing an actual strategy for getting that done. Instead, he continues to insist that he is not in favor of ending the filibuster in the Senate, even though it’s the chief impediment to federal action on the subject. He argues instead that such a move would only throw Congress “into chaos.”

Reverend William Barber, my co-chair in the Poor People’s Campaign, recently laid out the hypocrisy of the president’s “support” for voting rights, even as he justifies inaction on the filibuster:

“President Biden, I have no doubt you care and desire to do right, but, as a clergy person, let me say pastorally, when you say ending the filibuster will create chaos that obscures the fact that the filibuster is facilitating chaos. The filibuster caused chaos with anti-slavery legislation, labor rights, women’s rights, civil rights, voting rights, and it once again is causing policy chaos by allowing a minority to obstruct justice. The filibuster has already been used to stop your goal of $15/hr. living wage. We believe the filibuster should end. But, at the very least, no one should ever say the filibuster is preventing chaos.”

As Barber notes, the filibuster is also obstructing urgent policy struggles around better wages and healthcare, immigration reform, and the large-scale infrastructure plan that the Biden administration has worked so hard to create. Action on these issues would dramatically improve the lives of millions of poor and low-income Americans and is precisely what a majority of voters support and extremists are so eager to block through voter suppression. That’s why there’s been a recent upsurge of grassroots actions meant to connect the fight for democracy, including voting rights, with economic justice and the abolition of the filibuster. This includes a season of non-violent moral direct action, including a March for Democracy and a Rally in Texas organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, because its members understand that what’s really underway in this country is a struggle between democracy and potential autocracy or, as Martin Luther King once put it, between community and chaos.

Our own choice is the sort of community where everyone has an equal voice in our democracy and, honestly, in that I believe I am simply following in my father’s footsteps.

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis Featured image: Voting Rights Act by Victoria Pickering is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.


When You Lift from the Bottom, Everyone Rises: Have We Entered America’s Third Era of Reconstruction? Wed, 23 Jun 2021 04:01:22 +0000 ( – West Virginia, a state first established in defiance of slavery, has recently become ground zero in the fight for voting rights. In an early June op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin vowed to maintain the Senate filibuster, while opposing the For the People Act, a bill to expand voting rights. Last week, after mounting pressure and a leaked Zoom recording with billionaire donors, he showed potential willingness to move on the filibuster and proposed a “compromise” on voting rights. Nonetheless, his claim that the filibuster had been critical to protecting the “rights of Democrats in the past” and his pushback on important voting-rights protections requires scrutiny.

After all, the modern use of the filibuster first emerged in the 1920s and 1930s as a response to civil rights and anti-lynching legislation. In 1949, senator and southern Democrat Richard Russell, then a chief defender of the filibuster, unabashedly explained that “nobody mentions any other legislation in connection with it.”

Manchin’s apathy toward democracy actively harms millions of West Virginians in a state where 40% of the population is poor or low-income and voter turn-out rates remain dismally low. Indeed, that filibuster potentially stands directly in the way of billions of dollars in infrastructure and job-development funding that would buoy the Mountaineer State, as well as many other states across the country. At the same time,the protection and expansion of voting rights would benefit poor and low-income West Virginians significantly.

The debate on protecting voting rights and on the filibuster in Congress is only part of an assault on democracy underway nationally. Halfway through 2021, the very Republican extremists who continue to cry wolf about a “stolen” presidential election have introduced close to 400 voter suppression bills in 48 states (including West Virginia), 20 of which have already been signed into law. As journalist Ari Berman recently tweeted all too accurately, this wave of reactionary legislation is the “greatest assault on voting rights since the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870s.”

When history circles back on itself like this, it’s worth paying attention, especially since the years following the Civil War represented the most significant wave of democracy this country had ever seen. For almost a decade during that First Reconstruction, formerly enslaved men and women forged fragile but powerful political coalitions with poor whites across the South, leading state governments to advance the rights of dispossessed millions, while securing key federal legislation and constitutional amendments that would forever change the country.

The racist and violent backlash to Reconstruction was more than a reaction to the enfranchisement of former slaves and the empowerment of propertyless whites. It was a response to the threat a multiracial democracy from below posed to the still all-too-powerful remnants of the southern Slavocracy and the barons of Wall Street some thousand miles to the north. Today, the stirrings of a similarly transformative era are palpable and the growing antidemocratic counterattack suggests that the modern equivalent of those Slavocrats and the billionaire barons of this moment feel it, too.

As inequality and poverty continue to deepen, poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans favors commonsense policies like universal healthcare, wage increases, affordable housing, and voting rights. And from the multiracial Black Lives Matter uprisings last summer, which pulled in tens of millions of Americans, to the historic electorate that voted in the Biden-Harris administration, it may soon be increasingly clear that this majority is willing to act to make its needs and demands the order of the day.

In the wake of that First Reconstruction and what might be called the Second Reconstruction of the Civil Rights era from the 1940s to 1970s, we may now be in the early days of a Third Reconstruction. Still, no one should ignore another reality as well: those who would stop such a moment still wield enormous power and will continue to use every imaginable tool of division and subterfuge, from suppressing the vote and maintaining the filibuster to limiting wages and supporting highly militarized police forces.

The first two Reconstructions have much to teach us about the possibilities and dangers that abound today.

A Tale of Two Reconstructions

The First Reconstruction emerged in the bloody wake of the Civil War and 250 years of slavery. For roughly eight years, 1865-1877, formerly enslaved people were joined by poor white southern farmers who saw that they shared certain political aspirations and economic interests. Within just a few years, such cross-racial alliances controlled state houses in the South, passing some of the most progressive education, civil rights, and labor laws in this country’s history.

In several states, new constitutions granted the right to public education (to this day, still not federally enshrined). Such fusion coalitions, often led by the formerly enslaved, knew that their freedom depended on a vibrant democracy, so they expanded access to the ballot. At the federal level, these new Southern governments in conjunction with their Northern counterparts, helped advance the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, later known as the Reconstruction amendments.

For too brief a time, there was a historic redistribution of political and economic power that offered a glimpse of what true democracy could look like on American soil. But from the start, such a program faced enormous opposition. Not surprisingly, many former Confederates saw Black citizenship, as well as any kind of interracial working-class alliance, as inherently illegitimate. As a result, old slave-holding politicians fought the use of taxes to support public education, especially for Black children, while working ceaselessly to suppress the Black vote.

In the process, violence and terror quickly came into use. It was within the crucible of Reconstruction that the Ku Klux Klan first took shape, with the goal of terrorizing Black and white leaders alike. White-led mob violence and outright race massacres in both the North and South shook this budding interracial democracy to the core and, after the federal government abandoned the effort, white extremists across the South wrested back power. In place of Reconstruction, they formulated a Jim Crow system that would again codify a strict racial hierarchy and stand until the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed deep into the next century.

That Second Reconstruction began quietly in the 1940s, gaining steam and strength in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, it’s better known than the first, though its currents are more complex than the conventional narrative suggests. For much of the first half of the twentieth century, community leaders and political organizers, Black and white, in the North and the South, continued to fight for the civil and economic rights that had briefly flourished after the Civil War. Through the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II, Black leaders in particular focused on establishing an expansive vision of human rights amid the squalor of deeply entrenched inequality.

At the same time, using everything from race-baiting to anti-communism, the federal government worked diligently to suppress the very idea that political and civil rights might in any way be linked with economic rights (as physical and sexual violence continued to be directed at Blacks). In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education the Supreme Court declared that segregation in education was unconstitutional, a ruling that helped fuel grassroots efforts to challenge its legitimacy in all public and private institutions. Following that ruling, the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 would prove a catalyst for the continued growth of Black freedom struggles. Soon enough, a massive reconstruction movement arose across the country demanding justice and equality.

That Second Reconstruction ushered in the end of legal segregation and Jim Crow. In its place, major democratic reforms were implemented; voting rights expanded; and, in some Southern states, Black politicians were elected to office for the first time in a century. As with the First Reconstruction, the impact of such breakthroughs were felt not just in the South nor in relation to a narrow set of issues, but by poor and dispossessed people nationwide. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty, creating significant new federal programs of social uplift. Sadly enough, however, by the late 1960s, as ever more government funding and attention was squandered on an increasingly disastrous war in Vietnam, government action still failed to meet the needs of millions of Americans and some of the new anti-poverty programs, starved for funds, began to falter.

Recognizing that this reconstruction moment might be lost, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others called for the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. Combining the energies of the Black freedom, antiwar, welfare rights, and farm worker movements, the Poor People’s Campaign made plans to camp out on the Washington Mall until its demands for social justice were met. That encampment, called Resurrection City, was constructed in the late spring of 1968, just months after King’s assassination. Only six weeks later, it would be razed by the police, a sign of the times amid a growing wave of racist and anti-poor actions that had already begun to sweep the nation.

This counterattack on the Second Reconstruction to come would be encoded in politics as the Southern Strategy – a conscious effort by extremist elites in the Republican Party to win back power across the South by rebuilding a regressive form of cross-class white solidarity. Having grasped American history, including the rise and fall of the First Reconstruction era, they knew that controlling the South was key to controlling the country. Using a new vocabulary of racist dog-whistles, they set out to undermine the gains of the previous decade, while rolling back the rights of the poor and people of color. In many ways, half a century later, the United States is still living through the fallout from that moment.

The Stirrings of a Third Reconstruction

In 2013, 17 people were arrested outside the General Assembly building in Raleigh, North Carolina. They were protesting the rise to power of extremists in all three branches of the state’s government. The result, in the previous decades, had been a full-spectrum assault on democracy and the rights of everyday North Carolinians, especially the poor and people of color. This had included attacks on public-school funding and public healthcare, as well as immigrant and LGBTQ rights. To tie it all together, the state politicians of that moment had used thinly veiled racist claims of voter fraud (sound familiar?) to pass the worst voter-suppression laws in a generation.

What began as a small action, however, quickly grew into the largest state-government-focused civil-disobedience campaign in American history. The architect of that campaign and the animating visionary for the Third Reconstruction was Reverend William J. Barber II. He and other leaders of what became known as the Forward Together Moral Movement had studied the history of the two Reconstructions in North Carolina and recognized the historic possibilities in their growing movement. Thanks to sustained organizing, they broke through the silos of single-issue politics and so flipped the governor’s house and, in the longer run, shifted the balance of power in the state supreme court. In the process, they overturned a monster voter-suppression law that, according to a federal court, targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.”

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This movement, which I first connected with in 2013, is a shining example of what might be called modern reconstruction politics. The trauma of the 2007-2008 recession and the brief rise of the Occupy movement helped transform a generation who found themselves with worse economic prospects than their parents. Many of them and the generation that followed have joined people from every walk of life to sustain movements ranging from Black Lives Matter and the Poor People’s Campaign (of which I’m the co-chair) to Indigenous people’s struggles and a rising wave of climate-justice activism on an ever more endangered planet.

These intersecting movements are, notably enough, generally multiracial in character and often led by poor people. Better yet, as the polls tell us, their calls for sweeping reforms have been backed by popular opinion — and even have growing support in Congress. In late May, for instance, Democratic congressional representatives Barbara Lee and Pramila Jayapal (backed by other representatives) sponsored a congressional resolution aptly entitled “Third Reconstruction: Fully Addressing Poverty and Low Wages From the Bottom Up.” It called on the nation to raise the minimum wage, enact comprehensive and just immigration reform, and expand voting rights.

The First and Second Reconstructions both emerged during moments of significant political turmoil and socioeconomic change, similar to what we’re living through today. Hourly wages for most workers have essentially stagnated since the 1970s, while income and wealth inequality have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, technological innovation has made increasing numbers of people superfluous to the economy, while producing a historic shift in downward mobility for middle-income earners. In the richest country in world history, poverty, joblessness, and homelessness have become permanent fixtures of American life, with at least 140 million people living in poverty, often just a $400 emergency away from utter ruin.

They represent a sleeping giant that, amid much upheaval, may be waking up to the injustice of voter suppression, the denial of healthcare, the suppression of wages, the state-sanctioned murder of people of color and the poor, the poisoning of America’s waters and air, and so much more.

When I think about the possibilities of this social awakening, I’m reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., just months before he launched the Poor People’s Campaign and was then murdered: “There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.”

Exactly such a force is possible today. Onwards to a Third Reconstruction!

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.


Mother’s Day Tears: The Fierce Prophetic Vision of Poor Women Fri, 14 May 2021 04:01:11 +0000 ( – One hundred and fifty years ago, in the bloody wake of the Civil War, the abolitionist Julia Ward Howe issued a “Mother’s Day Proclamation.” The world, she wrote, could no longer bear such terrible violence and death. She called on women across the country to “rise up through the ashes and devastation” and come together in the cause of peace. Forty years later, her daughter Anna Jarvis created Mother’s Day.

In the midst of another national trauma, with the latest Mother’s Day just past, perhaps it’s an auspicious moment to celebrate not just mothers, but women more generally. I think about countless women like my mom (who died nearly a year ago) enduring tremendous adversity to make ends meet and care for those they love. During the pandemic, after all, women have found themselves on the front lines in so many ways. They make up more than 75% of healthcare workers, almost 80% of frontline social workers, and more than 70% of government and community-based service workers. Add in one more thing: women have been hit first and worst by the economic crisis that Covid-19 set off, as female-dominated industries like retail, leisure, and hospitality were decimated.

The situation continues to be so dire for women that economists have even begun to talk about a “shecession.” A recent poll found that a quarter of women claimed they were financially worse off a year into the pandemic. In March, the percentage of women out of, or looking for, work was the highest it’s been since December 1988. For the first time in American history, job and income losses in an economic crisis have been worse for women than for men. And it’s been poorer women and women of color who have been hit hardest of all.

But the true depth of this crisis can’t be measured by job numbers and frontline risks alone. In an intensified yet eerily familiar way, this past year-plus has laid bare the pressures, burdens, and violence that women, especially poor women and women of color, face every day. It’s highlighted the disproportionate, unpaid labor they shoulder at home; the role they take in raising and educating children while caring for the sick and elderly; and the paternalistic, often punitive, presence of welfare and law enforcement agencies like Child Protective Services, the police, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in their lives.

In such a moment, we should all think about the opening words of Howe’s 150-year-old proclamation: “Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!”

Of Water and Tears

Before slavery was outlawed in America, formerly enslaved abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass insisted that those who feel the first pains of injustice must be the first to strike out against it. That was the very kind of “baptism” Howe invoked in her proclamation — an invitation to initiate women into struggles born from those already so much a part of their lives. Today, her invocation of “water and tears” should resonate for millions. Among them, it may have no greater relevance than for the women of the Michigan cities of Flint and Detroit.

April 25th marked the seventh anniversary of the ongoing water crisis in Flint. Many will remember the breaking news coverage about the lead poisoning of that city’s water system at the end of 2015. Others will recall President Barack Obama’s “mission accomplished” moment when he visited Flint and drank a cup of newly filtered tap water. But for the many women, poor and largely of color, who have become Flint’s “water protectors,” the crisis isn’t over. Even now, new water lines are still needed in some neighborhoods. A $641 million class-action settlement fund from lawsuits against the state of Michigan has indeed recently been set up for Flint residents, particularly impacted children, to receive help. However, community leaders are continuing to organize, because unfortunately many of the families and children who need the resources the most will be left out since the settlement requires documentation, which the poorest and most vulnerable families will struggle to obtain.

It’s important to note that the struggle of these warriors for clean water did not begin when the first cameras arrived in Flint to record the disaster. It began when, in 2011, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed an unelected emergency manager to rule the city with near-dictatorial powers.

A similar emergency manager had already imposed mass water shutoffs in Detroit after that city went bankrupt, while the one in Flint switched from piping in well-treated water from Detroit to pumping water directly out of the Flint River, which had been an unofficial waste-disposal site for local industry for decades. It was seen as a cost-saving measure for that financially strapped city until a new water-piping system could be built. Warnings and safety precautions were ignored when it came to lead and other pollutants ending up in local drinking water, a decision that would, in the end, condemn Flint’s inhabitants to years of mass lead poisoning. Because of that same tainted water, more than 100 people would also die of Legionnaires’ disease.

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We’re talking about a place that had once been a beacon of industry and prosperity, a city now struggling under the weight of deindustrialization and growing poverty. Claire McClinton, a long-time Flint community organizer and leader, summed up the crisis this way: “They could not have taken our water away without taking our democracy first.”

Her words are informed as much by history as by contemporary events. McClinton and many of the other women fighting for clean water had already spent decades organizing for a broad range of welfare, labor, and economic rights. She and many of those other Michigan water warriors are my political mothers and mentors. No wonder I once again celebrated them (as well as my own mom) this Mother’s Day.

Even earlier, in 1996, during the heyday of neoliberal austerity politics, welfare-rights and labor activists like those in Flint and Detroit witnessed Democratic President Bill Clinton eliminate the entitlement of millions to welfare and better living standards of millions by signing into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Among its other “reforms,” it replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a program which provided desperately needy children with welfare payments, with the far more restrictive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. They watched as government agencies kicked staggering numbers of people off life-saving federal assistance programs and continued to forcibly rip kids away from parents who, in terrible economic circumstances, could no longer afford to feed and house their own families adequately.

As the situation in Flint made clear, the historic fight for welfare was integrally connected to the ongoing fight for clean and affordable water, as well as, in our present moment in thousands of communities, the fight for living wages and voting rights. And don’t forget the need for a revival of an increasingly impoverished, not to say (in the wake of Donald Trump) ravaged, democracy.

Indeed, all these issues raise questions about the role the government should play in caring for people and addressing fundamental fractures in society like poverty, hunger, and sickness, which always disproportionately hurt women. All of these are, then — or at least should be — non-negotiable issues for women today.

Lifting from the Bottom Up

The first 100 days of the administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have clearly represented a surprising pivot from neoliberalism’s halcyon days under Clinton. For an anti-poverty organizer like myself, schooled in the politics of the 1990s and early 2000s, it was startling, even moving, to watch Biden address a joint session of Congress and announce that “trickle-down economics has never worked. It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle-out… We have a real chance to root out systemic racism that plagues American life… A chance to deliver real equity. Good jobs and good schools. Affordable housing. Clear air and clean water.”

Without a doubt, one of the administration’s biggest achievements so far is the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a $1.9-trillion relief package that has already begun to inject desperately needed resources into a needy America. Included in it was the Child Tax Credit (CTC), a potentially breakthrough anti-poverty program.

The CTC could be transformative for millions of poor families, especially if it were to be expanded and made permanent. For some observers, it may seem like a good idea conceived by policy experts for a critical but passing moment of national need. Dig a little deeper, though, and what you’ll find is that the CTC is an inheritance from the efforts of poor women over these last decades, especially those of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) in the 1960s and 1970s, some of whom are still organizing in Flint and Detroit.

The NWRO was a national organization of poor women on welfare, Black and white alike, at a time when more than eight million single women and their children received regular but meager benefits through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. NWRO leaders, however, saw such welfare not as a form of charity, but as a right. They insisted on the dignity of all work, whether in traditional jobs or at home, and the need to compensate all women for their labor. They championed a welfare system that wouldn’t separate the “deserving” from “undeserving” poor but instead put agency and power in the hands of welfare recipients rather than bureaucrats and social workers.

As it grew, their organizing coalesced around a demand for a guaranteed adequate annual income — and, in the late 1960s, they would prove a force to be reckoned with, recruiting leaders like Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to their cause. Their political imaginations were decades ahead of their time and their moral clarity on the position of poor women in this society prophetically advanced.

In 1972, Johnnie Tillmon, the first chairwoman of the NWRO, published a paradigm-shifting essay entitled “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” in which she wrote:

“I’m a woman. I’m a black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. And I’m on welfare. In this country, if you’re any of those things you count less as a human being. If you’re all of those things, you don’t count at all.”

Nearly half a century later, as we pause to honor mothers, isn’t it time to recognize the ways women like Johnnie Tillmon have for all too long been discarded by this society? Isn’t it time to be honest about those men — and women — who have risen to great heights, only to wield power in ways that hurt women? As for me, I can’t forget the moment when, during the fight over ARPA, Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema, a Democrat, made a show of walking past the Senate clerk’s desk, giving an exaggerated thumbs down to an amendment to the bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

When a reporter from the Huffington Post inquired about her vote, the senator’s spokesperson claimed that it was sexist to comment on a female politician’s “body language” or “physical demeanor.” Much more harmful to women, though, is the disproportionate impact of poverty and low wages on their families and them.

Sinema represents a state in which nearly three million people are poor or one emergency away from economic ruin, a majority of them women. It’s troubling, then, that a woman who has reportedly experienced poverty herself (although questions have been raised about whether she has exaggerated how poor she was) would deny living wages to poor and low-income women in her state and across the country. Among the Democrats in the Senate joining Sinema in dissent were New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen, as well as five male senators. (All seven of them are millionaires.) Their actions are a stark reminder that women need genuine representation in Congress, as well as policies that lift us all.

Sadly, that “Nay” vote against including a minimum wage raise in the Covid-19 relief package hurt women, people of color, and the poor. Altogether, 59% of low-wage workers are women and nearly 40% of all Black workers labor for less than $15 an hour. Yes, during the pandemic, we’ve begun calling many low-wage workers “essential.” It turns out, though, that they aren’t essential enough to be guaranteed wages that might help them afford the essentials of life.

Now, Sinema is also at the center of another legislative battle — about the future of the filibuster, a racist relic of the slavery and then Jim Crow eras that still has democracy in chains. It continues to prove a powerful cudgel for extremists in the Republican Party who are increasingly unable to win a governing majority fairly. It’s especially useful for those determined to stonewall on a host of policies that disproportionately impact women, from wage increases to welfare programs and reproductive rights. Sadly, despite claiming to care about sexism and the fortunes of women, Sinema continues to help hold the Senate hostage to score political points.

Arise Women of This Day

As a white woman — a mother, a pastor, a feminist, an activist, a teacher, and the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival — I feel obliged to challenge Senator Sinema: for her performance on the Senate floor, for her stance against living wages and for the filibuster, and for the long-term impact her actions will have on the 140 million poor and low-income people in this country, especially the 74 million poor and low-income women.

I also feel honored and obliged to uphold the work of women like Claire McClinton, Johnnie Tillmon, and Julia Ward Howe who have allowed us glimpses of what a government and economy that served and empowered all women could look like and who have highlighted the prophetic leadership of women impacted by the social injustices of their day. Now is the time to raise wages, ensure vaccine equity, and so much more. Now is the time to lift from the bottom so that all of society can rise, as poor people have been saying for years and President Biden has recently reaffirmed.

Tillmon couldn’t have made it clearer for us. “Women’s liberation,” she said so many years ago, “is simple. No woman in this country can feel dignified, no woman can be liberated, until all women get off their knees.”

Today, let’s hear her and arise together! In truth, every day should be Mother’s Day.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis