For the past few months, a debate has been unfolding over what it will take to address the country’s infrastructure needs. Earlier this year, President Biden released the American Jobs Plan (AJP), an infrastructure blueprint that included transportation, bridges, water and sanitation, broadband, and buildings, including childcare facilities and public housing. It came alongside the American Families Plan (AFP), which included universal free pre-K, free community college, childcare, a national paid family medical leave program, and expansions of health care, nutrition programs and the child tax credit. These programs – totaling over $2 trillion – would be funded with higher taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals and some degree of deficit spending in the short-run to grow our economic resilience in the long-run. Together, they offered a broad definition of infrastructure that accounted for the physical infrastructure and the human and social infrastructure we need to rebuild and repair this country.

More recently,  a bipartisan framework came out that focuses only on physical infrastructure. It totals $579 billion and relies on financing mechanisms that will privatize public assets. Even though this proposal will meet some of the pressing needs we have, it is restricted to a narrow definition of infrastructure and an even narrower vision of what can be adequately funded. (As we have seen before, this will only lead to higher user fees and fines, and put communities at risk of losing access to basic public services, including water). Indeed, what is at stake is not only how far we go in terms of infrastructure, but how best to allocate and use our wealth and resources. 

We know we can do more, even more, in fact, than the AJP / AFP proposals. In June 2019, the Poor People’s Campaign released a Poor People’s Moral Budget. Rather than a formal congressional or fiscal budget, the Moral Budget made two essential points: 1. We have abundant resources to meet everyone’s needs; and 2. Redirecting and investing public resources into meeting everyone’s needs will strengthen our economy. 

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This May, inspired by this idea of a “Moral Budget” and policy prescriptions the Campaign has been developing, members of Congress introduced the “Third Reconstruction Resolution.” The sweeping legislative resolution offers an omnibus vision of what it means to fully address poverty and economic insecurity, including around infrastructure. As Rev. Barber said at the National Poor People’s and Low Wage Workers’ Assembly, “only poor and low-wealth people and their moral allies have the legitimate contractor’s license to reconstruct America.” It is now endorsed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a growing number of lawmakers from dozens of states.

We have actually seen a glimpse of what this vision might look like in practice. During the pandemic, government programs were significantly expanded. Medicaid enrollment went up 14 percent, covering over 80 million people, with ten million more people enrolled since last January. These millions needed free health care that they could access and afford, not private insurance, COBRA or coverage they could never use because it was too expensive; Medicaid met this need. Likewise, stimulus payments and expanded unemployment insurance have kept millions of families and the economy afloat, after jobs were down and bills still needed to be paid. Federal moratoriums on evictions have prevented mass homelessness and state and local moratoriums on water shut offs have prevented millions of people from losing their access to water. 

Although these programs have been a lifeline in the pandemic, there has been pushback against them. Several states have refused to expand Medicaid and others are prematurely ending expanded unemployment programs. This resistance is not just cruel or inhumane. It has a history, one that is rooted in the ongoing redefinition of who is entitled to all of our Constitutional and human rights. Similar counterattacks came in response to both the First and Second Reconstruction eras, when multi-racial alliances expanded democratic participation and the substantive rights that a robust democracy offers. I encourage people to read Rev. Liz’ recent article on that history, as well as Rev. Barber’s book, A Third Reconstruction, to fully appreciate the moment we are in today. 

The remainder of this briefing includes powerful statements from the grassroots, moral and political leaders who have put forward the call for a Third Reconstruction. Their words recall the Statement of Demands For Rights of the Poor presented to federal agencies and departments during the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign by the Committee of 100. The Committee, which was made up mainly of poor people, lobbied Congress leading up to and during the 1968 Campaign’s six-week encampment on the National Mall. 

Photo of the Committee of 100 from “The Poor People’s Campaign: A Photographic Journal.” Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1968.

They wrote: “We come to you as representatives of Black, brown and white Americans who are starving in this land of plenty. We come to you because people who want to work can’t find jobs….we come to you with a direct request. We ask you to eliminate programs that try to fit poor people to a system that has systematically excluded them from sharing in America’s plenty. We say that the system must change and adjust to the needs of millions of who are unemployed and under-employed…. We have come here to say that we don’t think it’s too much to ask for a decent place to live in, at reasonable prices, in a country with a Gross National Product of $800 billion. We don’t think it’s too radical to want to choose the type of housing and the location. We don’t think it’s asking for pie in the sky to want to live in neighborhoods where our families can live and grow up with dignity…”

These are the legacies upon which we are building the Third Reconstruction today. Forward together, not one step back! 

Statements from May 24 Press Conference on the Third Reconstruction Resolution, Washington D.C.

Rep. Barbara Lee (CA) photo by Sarah Anderson, Institute for Policy Studies.

Rep. Barbara Lee (CA): “We’re at this moment of reckoning, to reimagine a better future for systematically oppressed and underserved and marginalized communities. This critical document reflects the state of the 140 million people who are poor, low wealth, and who are, yes, one emergency away from economic ruin…To all of those who have been involved with the hearings and town meetings of millions around the country, we hear you, we see you, and you have elected officials here in the House of Representatives, and I know in the Senate, who are going to listen and take your voice into these legislative bodies and do the right thing and move with a vengeance because we know that we are in a state of emergency.”  

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (WA): “Poverty exists because we allow it to exist. In the wealthiest country in the world, 140 million people are poor, because we have allowed it to be so…We allow poverty to continue when we make the choice to spend hundreds of billions on military spending instead of investing in giving enough to the poorest among us. We allow poverty to continue when the richest 130,000 people in America hold nearly as much wealth as the bottom 117 million people combined; when 55 of the largest corporations paid not even $1 in taxes last year; when we let our healthcare system be focused on profits instead of patients; when we do nothing to address White Supremacy and anti-blackness; when medical and student debt in this country cripples the dreams of the future for tens of millions of people; when 100 million Americans can’t find a playground, or green space within 10 minutes of their home; when Indigenous, Black, Brown and low-income communities lack access to safe drinking water or clean air; when more than 500,000 people experience homelessness in the richest country on Earth…” 

“Poverty exists because we allow it to exist.”

– Rep. Pramila Jayapal (WA)

Rep. Cori Bush (MO): “As a single mother, a single mom of two, working for $7 an hour, I constantly lived with the anxiety of not knowing how I was going to pay for my children’s clothes, when the school says they have to look like this, constantly worried about how I will purchase food…and how to pay my rent each and every month….Being one car accident, or one flat tire, one medical injury away from total catastrophe causes chronic stress, exhaustion, and anguish… Let me say, the $50 billion that we will save by withdrawing from Afghanistan could permanently end homelessness. Think about that. That’s what we mean when we say poverty is a policy choice. It’s an act of structural violence on our children, families, and our communities. And with this resolution, we’ve come together as lawmakers, as advocates, as people of faith, and as people of conscience because we choose affirming life, over inflicting violence.” 

Rep. Sara Jacobs (CA): “San Diego County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country. We have fortune 500 companies, we have mansions on the beach and yet, more than 40% of our kids are living in families experiencing poverty, even before the pandemic. And it isn’t just in one pocket, or one community, or one part. It impacts every single zip code in San Diego County… for too long, we haven’t talked about poverty. Instead, we blamed and punished people experiencing poverty. We put the burden on them to access the services that they’re eligible for. We focused on piecemeal approaches that don’t actually address the problem and then when they failed, we blame the people experiencing poverty themselves…While this resolution and this movement very rightly centers the voice of people experiencing poverty, it cannot only be the voice of people experiencing poverty who are calling for change. It is on all of us, especially those of us who have benefited from the system as it is, to push for a fairer and more just America.” 

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (MI): “I want to share with you, being a United States Congress member now, you hear the horror stories of so many of your residents who are living check by check. And this pandemic has just hit them so hard. One resident asked me, “When am I gonna get my child back into an early childhood program?” And I said, “Well, I’m gonna find you something, don’t worry. I’m gonna get you something online.” But she said, “you don’t understand Rashida. This is where I can get my child fed twice a day”…We don’t have another hour. We don’t have another day. We don’t have another month. And I’m hoping that with this resolution we can move with that sense of urgency, because really, truly our residents can’t wait.” 

Rep. Gwen Moore (WI): “Poverty is a deliberate thing y’all. We do it on purpose. The employers came and said, ‘We can’t compete against you giving them Medicaid and food stamps, you’ve got to take that away from them, to force primarily women into the low-wage workforce.’ Well, I wanted to be on the Ways and Means Committee, which is a very prestigious committee, because all the stuff I care about is under there: TANF, Social Security, Medicare, foster care. I stand ready to work, to put some meat on the dry bones of this resolution and to make this document become a living soul.” 

Rep. Jamie Raskin (MD): “This is something that is practical. We can do this. And it’s going to require the only thing that’s ever worked in the country to really redistribute power, which is a mass non-violent movement…. America needs a new non-violent movement and this is it. It has arrived with the Poor People’s Campaign. It’s here. Right now we’ve got it. This is the moral center of American politics right now.”

Statements from May 24 Moral Mondays Online Rally for a Third Reconstruction 

Rev. Dr. Barber: “Somebody said to me, just yesterday, ‘why would you offer people hope when things are hopeless?’ What is hopeless about 30 percent of the electorate being poor? What is hopeless about the fact that in 15 states, poor people can shift elections if they vote? The abolitionists were not in the majority, but they ended up winning!… There is more for us than against us…. Hope, when it develops, doesn’t cause rest. It causes unrest. Those who hope in God can no longer put up with reality as it is…. history tells us, every time people come together for moral and just reasons and stay together, they WIN….So don’t let somebody tell us that there is no hope. They don’t know what is possible. You don’t know what is possible until you mobilize for it. Until you PUSH for it. Until you STAND for it.” 

Rev. Barber and Pamela Garrison, photo by Steve Pavey / Hope in Focus. 

Pamela Garrison (WV PPC): “I’m happy we have representatives that have finally taken off the blinders and lifted up the ear muffs because we have been yelling, screaming and crying and nobody will listen to us. We have been fighting for years. We have no public housing. Our labor is being exploited. We have been taken advantage of for far too long. We’re not living, we’re barely surviving. And I want everybody to know, push your representatives and let’s show our power. We are the change. People be the change.” 

Callie Greer (AL PPC): “This is what is running through my mind. Deny, deny, deny. Unfinished, unfinished, unfinished. First reconstruction out of slavery. Deny, unfulfilled. The second reconstruction, civil rights, unfulfilled, and now pushed back. We are at this pivotal point in history. The iron is hot, we must strike, for this new third and all-inclusive, poor people included, reconstruction of America. We have the road map, we have the directions, we have the money to do it. Now is the time to get on the road to DC and tell them to release this money…so we have to push, we have to push until something happens. For 365 days, we have to push, we have to birth this thing. That is what you do when in labor. You have to push. You have to push.” 

Kenia Alcocer (CA PPC): “This Third Reconstruction looks at us as whole human beings. It doesn’t matter if you are undocumented. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Black person, a white person, or any other color or race. I need housing to survive. I need to be able to go out on the streets without the fear of being deported. I need clean water for my children. I need everything that will give me a better life…That is why this campaign is so important for us. The undocumented community is here with the Poor People’s Campaign, but we’re also here as tenants, we’re here as communities, and we’re saying enough is enough.” 

Chris Olive (WA PPC): I am a veteran, formerly homeless and recovering opioid addict, and I work at a non-profit called Chaplains on the Harbor, working with homeless people. I think this is one of the rare times that the will of the voters is actually being reflected in what our leaders are proposing…There are groups of people on the ground here that are doing what they can to address these issues, but we cannot do it alone. We need elected leaders on our side and we will keep pushing everyone to do the right thing.” 

Mary Jane Shanklin (KS PPC): “I’m a retired registered nurse and active in Nurses United and I’m a proud Kansas farmer’s wife… I’m pretty tough, but let me tell you what terrifies me: farmer suicide rates…Every farmer that I know knows someone who has committed suicide. Why are farmers committing suicide?  Because farmers are stressed out…and yet, with all of these stressors adding up, we only have one health clinic in our county with one doctor. One doctor for 3157 people. Mental healthcare here consists of a suicide prevention hotline. Poverty is a policy choice. For many rural farmers, the only choice they seem to find is suicide. How many more?” 

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and Valerie Jean from the Michigan PPC at the Moral Monday Launch of the Third Reconstruction, May 24, 2021

Valerie Jean (MI PPC): “I joined the Poor People’s Campaign out of necessity. I watched my whole neighborhood get [their water] shut off. My neighbor lost all of her income and had her water shut off, so we delivered water to her on a daily basis. These are the circumstances we’re going through, even though there was a moratorium on shut offs in Michigan…And we hope that every Congress person understands that these are the times that they are going to be judged by: whether they got clean affordable water to people, whether they made sure people had housing. This is your legacy. This is your time to be like, yep, let’s get everybody clean affordable water. This is the time.”

“And we hope that every Congress person understands that these are the times that they are going to be judged by: whether they got clean affordable water to people, whether they made sure people had housing. This is your legacy.”

 – Valerie Jean Michigan Poor People’s Campaign

Rev. Terri Hord Owens, Disciples of Christ: There is a scholar by the name of John Dominic Crossan, who gives us the twist of the familiar miracle that we hear about in the Bible where Jesus has 5 thousand men (that doesn’t count all the women and children) who need to be fed. The disciples tell him these folks are hungry. Jesus asks, ‘What do you have?’ Someone brings 5 loaves and 2 fishes. Jesus doesn’t do any hocus pocus. He simply blesses that food and tells them to distribute it. What would happen if we simply take what we have and allow the “moral imperative” that we have as people of faith, indeed, the moral imperative that we have as citizens of this country, to take what we have. There is enough. In that Bible story, there is not only enough to feed until everybody’s belly is full, but there are baskets and baskets leftover. I don’t know what a missile would buy us in terms of food, infrastructure, and healthcare, but I know there is enough.”