By William Barber II and Liz Theoharis
The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis spoke on a panel June 26 on poverty in the U.S. with UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty Philip Alston. Following the panel, Theoharis and the Rev. William Barber II delivered the following letter to the UN Human Rights Council requesting a hearing on extreme poverty across the 50 states. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
We, the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, request to convene a hearing before the U.N. Human Rights Council on the state of poverty in our nation. After more than three years of traveling across the U.S., meeting with poor communities from El Paso to Aberdeen to Detroit to Selma, Harlan County, Marks and Memphis, we have just completed 40 days of nonviolent moral fusion direct action with more than 3,000 poor people, clergy and other activists presenting themselves for nonviolent civil disobedience, culminating in a call to action rally and march of tens of thousands of people putting a face on the facts, demanding an end to abandonment in the midst of abundance.
We write with a sense of urgency. Just last week, the U.S. doubled down on its commitment to inflicting policy violence against children and families by pulling out of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. Days later, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley responded to a report from the U.N.’s special rapporteur on poverty by saying, “It is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America.”
Here is what is patently ridiculous: Today, despite substantial economic growth, a full 60 percent more Americans live below the poverty line than in 1968, and 43 percent of all U.S. children live below the minimum income level considered necessary to meet basic family needs. Fifty-three cents of every federal discretionary dollar goes to military spending, while only 15 cents is spent on anti-poverty programs. An alarming 13.8 million U.S. households cannot afford water, and a quarter million people die in the U.S. each year from poverty and related issues. And 23 states have enacted voter suppression laws since 2010, leaving the U.S. with fewer voting rights than we had 50 years.
In recent weeks it has been brought to the public’s attention that brown children have been systematically separated from their families at the border. Inside our borders, families of all races are separated from health care, food stamps and a living wage, and with widespread voter suppression and racist gerrymandering, millions of people have been separated from the ballot box. Hundreds of thousands of children are taken away from their parents because of their poverty; we hear the cries of the people “take away our poverty, not our children; take away unjust policies, not our children.”
Our democracy is impoverished. Policies serve the few at the expense of the many, while leaders spread lies to divide people against each other. To be clear: poverty is a moral and political crisis, one that this administration and Congress is inflaming instead of solving. Every policy decision is a moral one, but choices being made by our leaders have been overwhelmingly immoral. We need to reshape the heart and conscience of this nation, starting from the ground up. We need immediate and major changes to address systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and our distorted moral narrative.
Seventy-one years ago, W.E.B. DuBois submitted a petition to the United Nations about the unequal treatment of Black Americans. More than 50 years ago, Malcolm X approached the U.N. with a similar message, charging the United States with being, “either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property of your 22 million African American brothers and sisters.” Both human rights leaders and countless others including welfare rights activists, indigenous leaders, women and other marginalized groups, addressed the U.N. at times when the US government failed to bring forth solutions to moral and political crises.
Since our government is committing policy violence against its citizens, and exacerbating poverty instead of alleviating it, we urge the U.N. Human Rights Council to hear directly from the poor and dispossessed of the United States.
We call on you to listen to the Alabama woman whose daughter died in her arms because the state refused to expand Medicaid; to the undocumented California woman struggling to raise a family; to the Kansas City McDonald’s worker battling to raise three young girls on $9/hour; and to the Flint woman who is fighting for clean water in her community still four years after it became public that public officials had knowingly poisoned the whole city. We know you’ve heard from the special rapporteur on the conditions; now we ask you hear directly from those impacted by America’s policy violence.
As W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X and other human rights activists requested decades ago, we request an audience with you because our government seems unwilling or incapable of doing the right thing.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis are the national co-chairs, Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.