On July 31, 2020 the Congressional Black Caucus held a virtual town hall with the Poor People’s Campaign on the impacts of poverty and racism, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, on the 140 million poor and low-income people living in the United States. By the time of this hearing, the data had come in to reflect what we expected from the beginning: that poor people and people of color would bear the brunt of the disease burden and economic burden of this pandemic. Dr. Sharrelle Barber, a public health expert and coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign’s COVID-19 Health Justice Advisory Committee, started the hearing by reminding us that those who are suffering most from the effects of COVID-19 were already suffering as a result of policy violence before the virus hit.

Due to systemic poverty, systemic racism and ecological devastation, many in this country were really in crisis before the present crisis.

Maureen Taylor, the State Chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and member of the Poor People’s Campaign Steering Committee, followed Dr. Barber. She set the stage by highlighting the economic devastation that haunts Detroit, now made worse by the coronavirus. She started her remarks with a haunting question: “What is it that poor people have done to have us be treated so badly?” Since 2014, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) has shut off water service to over 140,000 households that owe at least $150 in unpaid water bills. From January 2017 to July 2018, 95% of water shutoffs occurred in majority-black neighborhoods. When the coronavirus became a national concern earlier this year, thousands of Black Detroiters, who were at a greater risk of contracting the virus, were living without running water at a time when the first-line of defense against a deadly virus was to wash our hands frequently. 

It only happens where the poor people are.

Maureen points out that the denial of water, an essential human right, is Detroit’s policy only towards the poor. DSWD’s shut off policy does not apply to its corporate customers, only to households that owe $150. In March, DSDW announced a program to restore water to shut-off households for a $25 restoration fee and a reduced bill of $25 per month — just for the duration of the pandemic. What will happen to their water service once the pandemic is over, and they are left with months of bills in arrearages? The program’s design guarantees precarity for thousands of Detroiters once the coronavirus threat has passed.

Our national leaders have left millions of Americans in precarity while we are still in the thick of the pandemic. Three months have passed since this hearing and Congress has failed to provide sufficient economic relief to Americans who are living in layers of crisis. Two key provisions of the CARES Act expired at the end of July — $600 weekly federal unemployment benefits and a national eviction moratorium — and Congress went on recess without renewing them. When federal unemployment benefits expired on the day of this hearing, less than half of the 22 million jobs lost in March and April had returned. When the evictions moratorium expired, up to 40 million Americans were at risk of forced homelessness at a time when we are being asked to stay home to prevent the spread of disease.

In the face of increasing direness of our national situation, some of the highest voices in the policy arena are calling for moral policy measures to get us through this crisis. In September, the CDC intervened to reinstate the evictions moratorium through the end of the year, citing the colossal threat of mass homelessness to our fight against the spread of COVID-19. Jerome Powell, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, has loudly insisted that a stimulus package that meets the economic needs of struggling Americans is necessary to our economy’s survival.

We know that morally sound policy is economically sound, even outside of crisis moments. That is why the Poor People’s Campaign has developed the Poor People’s Jubilee Platform: A Moral Policy Agenda to Heal and Transform America. The Jubilee Platform is a comprehensive package of policy demands that attack the roots of the societal ills that leave millions of Americans in a constant state of economic crisis. On October 23–24, 2020, the Kairos Center held Moral Policy in a Time of Crisis, an online conference exploring the Jubilee Platform’s urgent relevancy in this moment and for the future of the nation. Dr. Barber and Ms. Taylor were featured speakers at the conference. You can learn more about the conference here.

Read below for Dr. Barber and Maureen Taylor’s full testimonies in front of the Congressional Black Caucus and watch the video here.

Testimony from Dr. Sharrelle Barber and Ms. Maureen Taylor to the Congressional Black Caucus

Dr. Sharrelle Barber: Thank you so much, Representative Lee. It’s an honor, and I actually count it as a privilege and what I have be doing in this moment — speaking truth to power, standing with those who are fighting poverty. So it is just my reasonable service to be here with you all. I first just want to also acknowledge the leadership of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, as well as my colleagues on the COVID-19 Health Justice Advisory Committee. 

As we all know, due to systemic poverty, systemic racism and ecological devastation, many in this country were really in crisis before the present crisis. And as an epidemiologist I like to bring out some of the numbers, which have already been highlighted, but I’ll say a few more. According to the federal poverty line, 41+ million Americans were living below poverty before the crisis and that included 17.3 million whites, 11.1 million Latinx individuals, and 9.2 million Blacks. In relative terms, Native Americans have the highest poverty rate, followed by Blacks and Latinos. But we know, just as Rep. Lee mentioned, that these numbers grossly underestimate the real picture of poverty here in this country. A more accurate number is a number that the Poor People’s Campaign has used and that is 140 million poor and low-income individuals in this country. And in the wealthiest country in the world, this is a disgrace. We also knew that before the crisis, over 27 million Americans lacked health insurance. And research out of Columbia noted that poverty, racism, all are deadly. And so 700 Americans were dying each day from poverty.

And then COVID-19 hit. And I’ll say this and I’ll continue to say that the irresponsibility and the recklessness of this administration is inexcusable. That nearly five months into this pandemic we find ourselves as the global epicenter with nearly 4.5 million confirmed cases here in the United States and over 150,000 confirmed deaths. And this scenario, as many public health scholars have said, was preventable. But unfortunately, and as we all knew, it is wreaking havoc on poor communities and communities of color. Across the country cases are spiking, healthcare systems are being overwhelmed, frontline healthcare workers are dying and we continue to lack access to widespread testing, treatment, sufficient protections for low-wage essential workers, adequate economic relief for those most marginalized. And we know that eviction moratoriums, federal assistance is all scheduled to end and more people are being driven into unemployment. 

Those are the numbers in terms of the economics but we know this COVID-19 is causing so much death and destruction. The data is heartbreaking but it definitely reveals what we’ve always known: that racism is deadly, poverty is deadly, ecological devastation is deadly and until this country deals with the deeply embedded inequities resulting from decades of policy violence, this pandemic will continue to exploit the deep fissures of our society. Research out of Harvard shows that people living in the most impoverished counties in the country are nearly two times more likely to die than those in the wealthiest counties regardless of race (and this is due to COVID-19). We know that upwards of 13.5 million people have lost their health insurance. And this not only has implications for COVID-19, but other conditions that we know are disproportionately among poor communities and communities of color.

Until this country deals with the deeply embedded inequities resulting from decades of policy violence, this pandemic will continue to exploit the deep fissures of our society.

We also know that there has been deep racial inequities — striking racial inequities — due to this virus, with Blacks making up 13% of the population but estimates showing 27% of the confirmed deaths in this country. And we know that not only is this happening in our communities but this is happening in homeless shelters, in prisons, in detention centers, among the elderly in long-term care facilities. And in fact, in one Ohio prison, 80% of the inmates tested positive for COVID-19. And we know that prisons and incarceration are linked to poverty and racism. And so what’s happening and what the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing is that these impacts really really run deep. And so, like I said earlier, my colleagues have been saying since March that it didn’t have to be that way. That equity and justice should have been at the center of our federal response because none of us are safe until all of us are safe. 

And we still have an opportunity to ensure that the crisis of COVID-19 doesn’t further exacerbate the crisis of poverty. So we need to be providing access to free testing, free treatment, safe and humane isolation facilities, and we need to make sure this is universal for high-risk populations. We still need to provide adequate income protections, economic relief, safe and humane working conditions, because COVID-19 shouldn’t be a death sentence for those who choose, or have to work during this crisis. We also need to ensure that those in prison can be released so that being in prison doesn’t become a death sentence. We also need adequate protections for immigrant populations, documented and undocumented,  as well as poor rural communities where the cases are surging — and that’s from the Mississippi Delta to Appalachia. This is all critical if we are going to prevent and slow down this deadly trajectory that we’re currently on. 

For me as an epidemiologist, part of my job description is to count death and it has been extremely hard knowing that these deaths could have been prevented, knowing that the crisis existed before this COVID-19 crisis just exacerbated so many things. But I knew, and my colleagues knew, that it was only a matter of time before this pandemic would claim the life of someone within the ranks of the Poor People’s Campaign. In June of 2020, Pamela Rush, a Black woman from Tyler, Alabama and an organizer with the Alabama Poor People’s Campaign, died from complications due to COVID-19. Pamela had been fighting, and she had been made poor by the systems of racism and poverty that leave so many in the rural South fighting for their lives. She was also the victim of environmental racism, lacking access to proper plumbing and limited access to clean water. She also lived in a state that had refused to expand Medicaid. And though her cause of death was listed as COVID-19, the true cause of her untimely and unnatural death are the systems and powers that deem people like her disposable. In the wealthiest nation on the Earth, this tragedy should not be a reality, but it is, which is why even in the midst of the pain, there is a movement — the Poor People’s Campaign — that’s fighting for this nation to put an end to this deadly trajectory. 

And though her cause of death was listed as COVID-19, the true cause of her untimely and unnatural death are the systems and powers that deem people like her disposable.

So at this moment, I’d actually like to lift up one of the warriors of that movement, Ms. Maureen Taylor. Ms. Taylor is a longtime leader in the fight for the rights of the poor and dispossessed. From the struggles for decent jobs, welfare rights, water and more. She lives in Detroit, Michigan and is the Chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. She is also on the steering committee for the Poor People’s Campaign and I’m completely honored to introduce her to you all today. 

Maureen Taylor: I bring you all greetings from Michigan Welfare Rights and say to you that it is such an honor to be on the virtual stage with Rep. Lee and Rep. Moore and representatives from the Poor People’s Campaign, which is doing a lot of work to try to expose an issue that I do believe is not a surprise to anyone. Since 2014, in just Detroit, the boundaries of Detroit, we have had 140,000 households affected with water shutoffs. 140,000 separate addresses have been shut off of water. Some got back on, others moved, other things happened to that population but what they all have in common is that they were all — and are all low-income households.

And so we ask the question: why? Detroit was one of the targets of predatory lending and we all know what that is. It led to whole scale foreclosures and evictions. And we always ask the question — why? What is it that poor people have done to have us be treated so badly? What is it? So as these issues continue to raise themselves, we started to go back, as everyone else did, to look and see where this nightmare started. Well, here in the Detroit area, we’re all familiar with places called Dodge Main, Chevrolet Gear and Axle, Lynch Road Assembly, Huber Avenue Foundry, Mack Stamping, Cadillac, Cadillac Glass, Cadillac Fleetwood, Ford Rouge, Kelsey-Hayes, Lansing Assembly. All of these were facilities that had persons connected to Detroit, to Flint, to Pontiac, to Saginaw. Automobile factories and automobile workers: they created, birthed something called the middle class. And that started to change when each one of those factories I just mentioned started to cut back, cut back, close and then when it returned during change-over, it was always fewer and fewer people.

And what we began to discover is that as these plants closed, these warehouses closed, these corporations closed, they were replaced by machines. R2D2, automation, all kinds of things started to replace folks. In the beginning, it was enhancing labor. And now, it turned into replacing labor. At the time when the Ford Rouge complex was opened by Henry Ford, they had up to 100,000 workers spread out in different factories completing a transmission, and this was the engine plant and here was the seats. And all of these things get together and at the end, what drives off the assembly line was a car. 100,000 independent workers, always able to manage. Today, my son works at Ford Rouge. There are fewer than 9,000 workers able to manufacture 15 times as many cars as they were able to with the 100,000. So we’ve got an automation problem, we’ve got a technology problem and all of these things work on and affect the lives of low-income people.

But we have something even more that we wanted to present to our wonderful reps today. And we have something called the Double-A Plan. Now, you’ve probably heard of a AA battery. Well we’ve got a AA Plan. And that double A plan is audacity and authority. Where the hell did these people get the authorization to torture people? If you can’t pay your light bill or your gas bill, some corporation has the right to turn it off. Water is supposed to be a human right. And in Detroit, you can have your water turned off. And you know you have to have it to wash your hands, especially now with the COVID virus. We know you have to have this water now, especially since Flint. Since 2014, low income people have been fighting to just try to stay alive. But somewhere it’s written, I can’t find the words, but it’s written that the corporations and that the government has the right to disconnect water. Oh, my goodness. It’s just beyond the capacity to figure out and it only happens where poor people are. Rich people go for years not able to pay a bill. Or corporations, the Tigers, the Lions, they forgot to pay their bill for all of 2017 — “Oops, I hate when that happens!” But they never get a shutoff notice. And if you’re low-income and Mrs. Jones, all you have to be is $150 behind, or two months in arrears and you can have your service shut off.

Where the hell did these people get the authorization to torture people? If you can’t pay your light bill or your gas bill, some corporation has the right to turn it off. Water is supposed to be a human right.

I’ll say to you that the cost of living is going up while the chances of living are going down. And it is just an outrage that it continues ‘cause no one is surprised at this nightmare that poor people are living in. So I’ll say to you as I close my remarks: we’re at the point now of trying to figure out what is to be done. All of these conversations that talk about ‘we’re in this together,’ we’re not in this together. Rich people, once they found out that a virus was possible, they already went to their summer homes and their winter homes. But they send Garçon down to the gate to pick up their food and their groceries. Mrs. Jones is in a conflict with her water: not a problem, just shut it off. She’s got the same conflict as the Tigers, the Lions, and some of these other corporations. It’s that we are treated differently and it just continues.

I’m going to give this last piece of advice. And again, I’m humbled to serve as State Chair of Michigan Welfare Rights and we have members across the state and with the welfare rights union — the national welfare rights union — we’re rebuilding across the nation. But here is my advice to my two wonderful warrior reps: go back and tell your colleagues that folks in Welfare Rights are giving you a second and a third and a fourth warning. The best thing is to try to listen to Rev. Liz. The best thing is to try to listen to my sweetheart Rev. Barber. Because they’re going to tell you the right things with love and nonviolence. If you don’t listen to them, then you’re going to have to listen to me. And you’re going to have to listen to folks in Welfare Rights and we’re not going to be quite as honorable as the two folks that I mentioned. We’re part of the Poor People’s Campaign, and happy to be that. But I can tell you as a Detroiter — and I’m the littlest one in the group —  these are some tough women and tough men in Welfare Rights. And it’s going to be a whole lot better if we can get the country to realize we need affordable housing and we don’t need to die about it. We need affordable health care and we don’t need to die about it. We need things to be equitable — Black, White, Hispanics, the whole 9 yards. We all need access for equality of life. Listen to Rev. Liz. Listen to Rev. Barber. Otherwise Welfare Rights is going to show up in Washington, D.C. and you’re gonna have to listen to us. I thank you very much for your attention. Maureen Taylor, signing off.