By Willie Baptist and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis
This is the first chapter of a forthcoming book from the Kairos Center, on the call for a new Poor People’s Campaign. Each chapter is accompanied by the edited transcript of a discussion about its key themes by leaders in poor people’s struggles from around the country. The chapters will be published here on the Kairos Center blog as they’re finished.
In his last years Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to understand “Who are the poor?” and “Why are we poor?” Speaking to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in August 1967, he called for a deeper examination of these questions:
There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.((Martin Luther King, “The SCLC Presidential Address,” World History Archives, August 16, 1967.))
His questioning led him beyond the superficial as he recognized that the problem of poverty and the needs and demands of poor people cannot be addressed apart from the problems facing the whole of society. Poverty is the necessary product of our current society rather than an accident of policy, misfortune, or bad personal decisions. King continued:
We are called upon 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 questions that must be asked.((Ibid.))
Later that year he talked about the poor as being “dispossessed” and “having little or nothing to lose.” Without an ownership interest in the economy, they lack control over the basic economic institutions through which life is made secure and livelihood is attained. The poor are thereby compelled to seek jobs to earn money to purchase a bare living for themselves and their families. Meanwhile, those who do own and control these economic institutions have to hire only for competitive purposes of maximizing profits. As opposed to the poor, the fundamental economic interests of the capitalists as a social group are in maintaining this system that creates and perpetuates poverty through the economic exploitation and impoverishment of the dispossessed. This is the ‘edifice’ that produces both the “beggars” and the billionaires in King’s time and in ours.
Indeed, whatever our particular occupation, whether we are employed or unemployed, whether we are students or graduates or dropouts, whether we are homeless or housed, whether we are immigrants or nonimmigrants, we are in the same economic relationship to this exploitative system as the “beggars.” However this is not how we have been led to think about our own economic situation or that of our neighbors. We have been led to think of “class” differences as meaning only differences in income and not deeper economic and political inequality, or a relationship of domination and exploitation. These relationships are manifested in income inequality but are more fundamental than it.
For example, five of the richest people in the country are from the wealthy Walton family; they have more wealth than 43 percent of Americans combined.((Josh Bivens, “Inequality, Exhibit A: Walmart and the Wealth of American Families,” Economic Policy Institute, July 17, 2012.)) In 2014 they had a combined worth of over $166 billion.((“Forbes 400,” Forbes. Similar analysis using the previous year’s data can be found at in Tom Kertscher, “Just How Wealthy Is the Wal-Mart Walton Family?,” Politifact, December 8, 2013.)) At the same time five Wal-Mart’s so called “sales associates” had combined wages of less than $77,880 a year on average.((“Fact Sheet – Wages,” Making Change at Walmart.)) It would take five Wal-Mart workers two million years to earn income equal to the combined wealth of the five Waltons. Their total wealth includes the values of their holdings in stocks, bonds, real estate, and the cash that they’ve accumulated from their own incomes. Between the Waltons and their employees, it’s obvious that there is vast inequality, measured either in personal wealth or in annual income.
This income and wealth inequality is due to the fact that the Waltons own the controlling interests, i.e. they have the largest percentage of shareholdings of the global conglomerate Walmart along with other capital investments. What’s significant isn’t just that they’re wealthy, but that their wealth and income are products of the fact that they have property or possession of the controlling interests (stocks, bonds, and other forms of equity or ownership of capital investments, etc), which have enabled them to attain tremendous profits through the exploitation of their Walmart “sale associates” and others of the world’s poor who are dispossessed. The relationship between their possession of capital investments and the wages of the exploited poor and dispossessed is what sits underneath the reality of wealth and income inequality.
Walmart is the largest retailer and largest private employer in the world and is emblematic of the polarization of wealth and poverty in our economy. Far too many Walmart workers continue to live in poverty and rely on public programs like food stamps to survive, while Walmart raked in $16 billion per year in profits in 2014.((“Annual Financials for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.,” Market Watch, October 27, 2015.)) Walmart workers, like most of the world’s employed and unemployed workforce, are dispossessed: They have no property ownership of the workplaces and major corporations. They are therefore compelled to seek employment wherever they can find it to attain enough income to purchase at least a bare life existence for them and their families. The Waltons, as with all other business owners, are compelled by the current economic system to hire in a way that maximizes returns on their investments. In other words, this economic system requires the constant drive for the highest profits – profits that can only be sustained by way of minimizing the cost of production and exchange. Ultimately, this means hiring laborers who are compelled to either work for less pay or face unemployment.
In history, the income discrepancy between the slaveholders and the slaves was due to the fact that the former owned the latter as property. In this super-exploitative relation, the slaves, of course, received no income except an inhumane allotment from the slave-owner of the worst housing, raggedy clothing, and minimal food. On the other hand, the slaveholders extracted super-profits out of which they received unsurpassed incomes. Similarly today, the income inequality that exists between the poor and the wealthy has its roots in questions of who owns property and how most people secure an income.
Race, Poverty, Automation
The struggle to abolish poverty and inequality nationally and globally cannot be solved separated from the struggle to end racial and gender oppression. Owing to the particular history of the United States of America, the doctrine of race, which has come to be embodied in the institutionalization of racism, plays a prominent role in obscuring the common relationship of the various sections of the poor and dispossessed to the economy and to wealth. This has the effect of thwarting their unity and organization, which could be built on the basis of their shared position in the economic inequality of the broader capitalistic system. This has resulted in a culture or mindset where, for instance, poor blacks believe that because of their skin color they have more in common with rich blacks than with poor whites and the poor whites believe that they have more in common with rich whites than the poor blacks. King spoke to this problem in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here?:
One unfortunate thing about [the slogan] Black Power is that it gives priority to race precisely at a time when the impact of automation and other forces have made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike. In this context a slogan ‘Power for Poor People’ would be much more appropriate than the slogan ‘Black Power.’
As early as 1967, King had already come to understand the impact of automated production technology on economic class relations. Today automation has developed into an unprecedented technological revolution that is global in scope and is increasingly concentrating wealth in fewer hands as it eliminates jobs in all sectors of production, retail, finance, and communication. This is causing increasing sections of the so-called “middle-class” to become impoverished and jobless and it is making the growing ranks of the poor superfluous. That is to say, many poor people are no longer necessary for the economy and wealth to continue to grow. Noted economists from MIT to major consulting firms are starting to confirm this new process. They describe it as the “new normal” – equating 6% or more unemployment with “full” employment.
This means that the poor today differ qualitatively from the poor of the past. The socio-economic position of the low waged, laid off, and locked out is not that of the industrial poor, the slave poor, or the colonial poor of yesterday. The new poor embody all the major issues and problems that affect the majority of other strata of the country’s population. That is, they embody the worst problems of racial and gender inequality, ecological devastation, war and peace. This social position of the poor gives them the least stake in the economic status quo. And given the current economic and political direction of society, this position of the poor anticipates the position of the mass of the population. Poverty is devastating me today. It can hit you tomorrow.
Many rely on the US government-defined poverty threshold ((The formula was developed in 1965 by the Social Security Administration and multiplied the cost of adequate food by three, using an 1855 US Department of Agriculture study that found families spent 1/3 of their income on food. The poverty threshold has been adjusted for inflation, but has not been adapted to changes in the cost of living. Food takes up a significantly smaller portion of spending while other expenses–like health care, housing and education–have increased dramatically, making the official federal measure a rather arbitrary number. Most developed nations use a ratio to median income to define poverty, with the poor being those who make below 50 or 60% of the median income after taxes and social benefits. Using this calculation would raise the US poverty rate significantly.)) to understand the extent of poverty, but that way of measuring misses large numbers of poor people and cannot show us the ways in which many of us move in and out of poverty across our lifetime. Yet even this insufficient measure shows staggering levels of poverty in a nation with the means to abolish it. In 2013 there were 45.3 million people living with incomes below $11,892 for individuals and $23,836 for a family of four, up by 8 million since 2008. An additional 97.3 million people live below twice those income levels. Taken together this means that 48% of people in the United States are poor or near poverty. ((“Preliminary Estimate of Weighted Average Poverty Thresholds for 2013”, US Census Bureau; “Census Shows 1 in 2 Americans Poor or Low Income”, USA Today.))
Other studies have corroborated that when we think about who is poor, we should be talking about closer to half the nation rather than a small segment. Half of all children will qualify for SNAP at some point before they turn 20, including 9 out of 10 African American children. A study measuring economic insecurity found that 4 out of 5 (79%) of people in the US live in danger of poverty or unemployment at some point in their lifetime, defined as a year or more of periodic joblessness, reliance on government aid such as food stamps or income below 150 percent of the poverty line. And another study found that only 48% of people in the US could handle a $400 emergency without selling something or borrowing money. These measures point to the reality that a majority of the US population is in a situation of economic precarity and struggle, losing out in the current economy and in a position to benefit from a restructuring of society.((Tanner, Lindsey. “Food Stamps Will Feed Half Of US Kids, Study Says.” Associated Press, 11/2/09; “AP: 4 in 5 Americans Live in Danger of Falling into Poverty, Joblessness,” NBC News, 7/28/13, ; US Federal Reserve “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2013” 7/2014.))
A Social Force with the Least to Lose
Because of this and other circumstances, the poor–whether they are aware of it or not–are the leading social force for ending poverty and accordingly changing society. They are compelled to fight under qualitatively new conditions and to creatively wield new weapons of struggle. Because the ranks of the poor are being filled with people economically “downsized” and socially dislocated from all walks of life, including the “middle-class”, more and more people are raising fundamental questions about the economic status quo. This is a new and significant reversal in development, particularly in the United States, because historically we have witnessed generation after generation the growth of the middle-income strata. And these strata with their rising standards of living have always served as the strong social base of support of the economic and political status quo. Together these developments with respect to poor and the so called middle class represent great potentials for basic economic and political change, i.e., the abolition of poverty and all its manifestations. Dr. King spoke directly and presciently to this strategic question of power and fundamental social transformation when he stated in his Massey Lectures of 1967,
The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against the injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty. 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 … we will be recruiting three thousand of the poorest citizens from ten different urban and rural areas to initiate and lead a sustained, massive, direct-action movement in Washington. Those who choose to join this initial three thousand, this nonviolent army, this “freedom church” of the poor, will work with us for three months to develop nonviolent action skills.
Our mission is, therefore, to unite and organize the poor as the poor, giving them the ability to have greater mass influence and impact. This means, above all, raising their consciousness of their social position. Thereby will the massive uniting and organizing of the poor across color and all other lines have “a freedom and a power” to coalesce the critical mass of the American people needed to move this country toward the abolition of all poverty: The restructuring of society called for by King in his day and by the emerging leaders who are organizing and seeking each other and answers to these questions today.
To succeed in this effort we must see past the distractions that portray the poor as pitiful or criminal and the source of their own poverty, rather than the present poverty-producing economic system. This means developing an understanding of who are the poor and why are they poor that accurately portrays this reality. An inaccurate estimate of these questions isolates and then divides the poor, separating the homeless poor from the day laborer poor, poor students from the global poor, poor artists from poor office workers. A narrow definition obscures what people have in common, when the task before us is to unite all the poor. The truth is if you can’t get the basic necessities of life, you are poor. Any other definition upholds the stereotypes that blind us all from understanding the cause and cure of all poverty.
Contrary to these prevailing misconceptions, the poor having the least to lose with the abolition of poverty are the potentially leading social force of a broader movement for social change and betterment. The poor, like all human beings, are endowed with dignity and worth, with the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and are capable of producing from their ranks individual leaders who, like King and countless others, are creative and courageous.
King said, “As we talk about ‘Where do we go from here,’… the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society.” If poverty is to be ended, the minds of the bulk of the over 300 million people that make up this country need to be changed. This was King’s vision of the Poor People’s Campaign and why he committed himself to the task of getting the poor to “take action together,” to thereby lead society through the plight, fight and insight that they represent as a social group. The united actions of the poor across color lines serve greatly to breakdown the stereotypes and unsettle the thinking of the mass of the people.
As the ranks of the poor and dispossessed continue to grow, indicating both the values and direction of our contemporary society and, therefore, the future of broader sections of the “middle class,” this remains our task today. We have to build a big movement to solve a big problem, and we need a lot of leaders or “builders,” coming from different social strata bringing different social skills and resources to carry this out. As King did in his time, we must raise the basic question of why does poverty exist in the richest country in the world. And we must also raise the question of the relation between poverty in the United States and poverty worldwide. Answering these questions precisely is a necessary step in awakening the consciousness of the ‘sleeping giant’, the mass of the American people.
- Who are the poor?
- What are some ideas and theories that preempt or divert from understanding the root causes of poverty in society today?
- Why are the poor poor?
- What is the difference between the poor today and in the past?
- Why is the economic destruction of the so-called “middle class” important?
Ronald Blount, Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania
Chris Caruso, CUNY Graduate Center
Nijmie Dzurinko, Put People First! Pennsylvania
Ashley Hufnagel, Oak Hill Center for Education & Culture
Luis Larin, United Workers of Baltimore City
Liz: We are gathered to refine our understanding of who are the poor and why we are poor, using my and Willie’s article as a jumping off point, but looking for depth of understanding that comes from the experience and study of those who are gathered together today.
Ashley: I read a version of this article many years ago while working with the United Workers of Baltimore City and it clarified questions that I had at the time. We used that article often within the United Workers’ educational programming, so it’s exciting to be asked to discuss it. In this current version I see further digging into the questions of power relationships between the growing mass of the dispossessed and impoverished on the one side and on the other side, the owners of the production, retail, financial and real estate institutions. That is between those who own these institutions and therefore control the economy in our society and those who because they don’t own these institutions of employment and control the economy in our society are forced to work for a wage in order to buy the things they need to live.
Chris: This article helps move us beyond a simple understanding of who are the poor, and it’s critical that we argue for a broader and more substantive definition of the poor. The common sense understanding of the poor is as a separate identity group, a small segment of the population set apart from the more educated, stable, middle-income strata, people who can be allies of the poor but who don’t really share a common future with the poor or a personal stake in the ending of poverty. In reality if we’re not in the 1%, by our definition, we’re poor. If we don’t own enough controlling stocks and bonds that we can live off our investments, then we’re poor. That’s not a common sense understanding.
Nijmie: Some of what resonates with my experience is the way that people are trained to either have a stigma about being poor or a conception of poverty is not encompassing the mass of people who are poor and dispossessed. They think in terms of all of these little strata without a real idea that these are all pieces of the class. Something that’s been helpful in introducing people to these ideas is thinking about the question of basic needs, what they are and how people relate to their basic needs. In the course of examining basic needs people come to the realization that they have basic needs that are not being met, that they aren’t thinking about as unfulfilled rights, because they’ve been trained to think of themselves as “lower middle class” or whatever perspective they have adopted to convince themselves that they aren’t as bad off as other folks. To me some conversations around basic needs – health care, education, childcare, housing – defining what they are, reframing them as human rights – that’s what I do in my work – can really open up and broaden the conversation about who is poor and what it means to be dispossessed beyond a narrow definition.
Ashley: What Nijmie is saying makes a lot of sense to me. The article points out that “the poor today are different from the slave poor, the colonial poor, and the industrial poor of yesterday” It raises the question of what are the issues that the poor today are dealing with. What is the position of the “low wage, laid off, locked out”? This is where I struggle a little. I understand class as a basic relationship of power based on domination and exploitation. Some are forced to go out into the marketplace to sell labor in order to live. There is this way in which the poor is associated with a certain strata of that class, the low-wage workers, the members of United Workers, maybe not so much thinking about the grad student, to put myself into that. We need a more accurate picture of what we’re dealing with today.
Chris: One difference between today’s poor and the industrial poor is that having a job today no longer means that you’re not poor. In today’s world you can have a full time job and be living in a shelter. You can have five part time jobs and be poor. Whereas in the industrial period there was a much more one to one relationship between poor people and joblessness. It’s still reflected in our language. “We just need to get people jobs.” One of the things that’s new is that you can be full time employed and still not be able to meet your basic needs in this economy.
Willie: Under slavery everyone had a job, but it didn’t stop them from being poor. Today they say the economy has recovered, but people are getting SLJs (Shitty Little Jobs) and still can’t make it. Under today’s economic technological conditions, businesses have to competitively seek to cut production costs to obtain the highest profits. Today that means employing computers and robots, which are becoming far cheaper than the employing human labor. This exerts further downward pressures on wages as the dispossessed is now having to compete with the lowering costs of computers and roboticized production.
Ron: What stirred me most in this article is the projection of where work is going, how automation is having an impact on our lives. Working closely with Taxi workers, dealing with Uber and airbnb, we see it unfolding. They put people in precarious situations. You no longer work an 8 hour day, you only work when they need you. I think the economy is heading in that direction. We must deal with that and look at that more.
Willie: The questions Ron is raising go to the heart of the issue of why the poor are different today. We are moving towards an economy where huge numbers of us are superfluous. That puts downward pressure on the wages of those who manage to have jobs that still exist. This technological development is unprecedented and makes necessary a social movement to solve its contradictions. It is hollowing out the economy, making large numbers of jobs disappear and creating very few jobs. It is not a matter of educating people to adapt to new jobs, but a “jobless recovery,” with 6% unemployment as the “new normal”. That “new normal” means that they think it is okay for millions of people to be jobless and without a means of securing what they need for their families to survive. That’s fascistic. We can see the death toll rise as people increasingly lack health care, safe housing and adequate food.
We need to understand how this is being talked about by those who are the leading thinkers and shapers of our world. As the technological revolution is raising unprecedented questions, we need to understand their analysis and what they’re planning to do about it. What do you do about people who are not needed to work?
Chris: This plays out in all of the sectors of our society. If you need mass low skill and semi skill labor then you have policies that go along with producing that labor. If you need hundreds of thousands of people to work on assembly lines then you have an educational policy that produces people capable of doing that work. You need a housing policy and a health care policy that supplies that mass labor, to get them to the assembly line tomorrow. If a large section is now superfluous from the point of view of profit making, then you have different policies. The plight of the new poor unites many of these different policy fights, like why are they defunding public education, privatizing all the public schools? Why this health care crap? Tearing down the public housing? Privatizing the water? They don’t need mass labor anymore.
Colleen: What are the ideas and theories that prevent an understanding of the root causes of poverty today? What are the blocks you encounter?
Nijmie: I could talk about this for days. There’s a broad “left” idea that if we just pull together a collection of categories of people, magically something will happen. We don’t talk as much about how the fundamental core of our society is structured and how the world economy is structured. There can be moments of “yes we must fundamentally restructure society.” People get that in their hearts a lot, but then there is a mind thing that comes in and says this is too much, too overwhelming. It is hard work and can be overwhelming, so the organizing landscape turns to the hyper-local. You only work on things you can immediately win. People only get involved if it’s very directly about their immediate life.
Ashley: One of the challenges that keeps us from understanding the root causes of poverty is the belief that it’s completely normal that our lives should be about getting a job and making enough money to survive. This basic relationship is naturalized to such an extent that we don’t question it. I can see other things in my life as unjust, but getting a job is something we all have to do and it’s always been that way and always will be that way. Having that basic relationship challenged in my mind was eye opening. That basic social contract is an institution that was created. It’s a historical institution based in our economy.
When we were in Selma for the fiftieth anniversary of the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge we met with many different people—auto workers, poor community members, local elected officials—and the word from everyone was “jobs, jobs, jobs”. I understand what they’re saying, but I think that demand doesn’t ask why a certain group of people own all of the wealth in the world and get that wealth from exploiting our labor. And because they get that wealth and own all of the institutions of society, they are able to dictate the quality of life for most people on this planet. Not understanding that prevents us from asking deeper questions about why poverty exists.
Part of why they are able to succeed in keeping us from asking those questions is by perpetuating a myth of scarcity. In so many ways we are told there isn’t enough to go around and that that’s the problem. Someone is always going to lose out in this game, because there isn’t enough for everyone. And that idea succeeds because we lack understanding of the economy. We’re prevented from studying or understanding the economy on a deeper level. None of us learn about it growing up in school and then further along in general our understanding is very limited.
Willie: We’re dealing with tremendous productive capacity in terms of technological development. And because of that level of development people, who must get a job to get money to survive, are seeing those jobs be eliminated. So there is a contradiction where in our roboticized and computerized society we are producing so much food that we are throwing away food and so many houses that they are standing empty but people are hungry and homeless. The contradiction of abundance and poverty is not what is discussed, so people are vulnerable to the notion of scarcity, that you want me to pay taxes for people unwilling to work. We need leaders who are teachers who can battle this idea.
Chris: Liz and Willie raise the example of Wal-mart, which is a perfect example of the widespread phenomenon of tax dollars going to subsidize private corporate profits. The fact that huge numbers of Walmart employees qualify for public benefits means that Walmart makes more profits. Who benefits from the fact that full-time workers get welfare? Not those workers. It’s Walmart who pays less in wages and privatizes all their profits. But what’s made up in wages in terms of benefits is put on the backs of taxpayers. People are paying, but who are they paying for? They’re paying to subsidize the profits of these mega corporations. There’s many more examples of the ways the state is called in, where corporations and government are working together to ensure that people are living in sub poverty wages. Todd Cherkis’ work with day laborers in Atlanta in the late 1990s revealed that the laws regulating when homeless shelter residents are kicked out of the building in the early hours of the morning coincided with when vans arrived to pick people up to go work in construction, landscaping and other labor-intensive jobs. There’s a whole system of state sponsored welfare that subsidizes the profits of low wage employers.
Liz: I agree that we must talk more about the changes that are taking place and the opportunities they open up. I find that many of the conversations about the rapidly changing nature of work still falls back on profit-making and increasing capitalism’s efficiency. Economists and social theorists can see these changes transpiring but can still only think in terms of profits for a few. They aren’t thinking about the lives of taxi drivers in the way that Ron is. The best they can think about is how customers can save energy. We have to be clear that we’re interested in ending poverty in the broadest sense, defining anyone who is poor as anyone who doesn’t have control over how they can make ends meet.
Ashley: I think this is where it’s important to resist the dividing of types of poverty and insist on a broad definition of who are the poor. The narrow poverty line is insufficient. There are those, like Ron raised, who are working 5 jobs or 12 hour days and then there are those who are without a job–locked out and superfluous. People are being affected in different ways and that keeps us divided. We have to include the mass number of people who are being incarcerated and how that is the result of people being economically superfluous. We talk about all of these issues as if they were unrelated to each other and it keeps us from seeing how they are rooted in the same problem.
Willie: The discussion of the way race, economics and war are related has to be opened up. The way we talk about police brutality appeals to our perceptions of race and limits the conversation with the frame put out by the major news sources and educational institutions. If the full problem is not discussed it cannot be solved. In New York there was the case of Eric Garner, choked to death by a white police officer for selling illegal cigarettes in front of a black-owned business selling legal cigarettes. The business owner called the police because Eric was taking some of the market. The point that is rarely discussed is why he was in that situation in the first place. Why did he need to sell illegal cigarettes? Why is police brutality concentrated in the impoverished areas? What are police relationships with other poor people in other communities? North Carolina NAACP President Dr. Rev. Barber II has pointed out that where he lives poor whites have problems with police also. Race is a real factor playing out in discrimination and disproportionality, but to restrict the discussion to race apart from class and class apart from race is to miss the complexities of people’s lives, society and the economy. Our conversation must include the basic relationships that allow for the accumulation of wealth, relationships that then dictate the role of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc and their relationship in society. This book is to equip the teachers and trainers who will have to bring analysis to increasing segments of the population, to understand the complexity of reality so we can discuss it in a much deeper way and not just let our emotions be appealed to by those who would divert and distract us.
Luis: Our religion, morality and values also limit our unity and understanding of who are the poor and why we are poor. I see the ways people who are poor receive the message that it’s your own fault and you’re not working hard enough. I also see the message that we should be happy with what we have; that we should get back to our family and our values and stop thinking about money. I even see media that says poverty is okay as long as you have your family. You have something more important than money. People translate that in different ways and for some they think it’s biblical, but its rooted in the idea that you should be happy with whatever you have and not ask for more. This can be a barrier when we try to organize to win something, to move from point A to B. I struggle with that.
Nijmie: The dehumanization of the system is a roadblock. When we’re subject to dehumanization from a variety of different levels it has an impact on how we see ourselves, treat ourselves, and see other people. Because of this, looking around at our families, friends and neighbors, we don’t trust people or see them as actually capable of leading something. There is a disconnect between the aspiration of the leadership of the poor and most directly impacted, and the way we learn to think about ourselves and each other. Political education and leadership development processes can get to the root causes of why people’s lives are in such disarray, why our lives look like they do, and how dehumanization teaches us to treat each other. Lifting up the idea that we deserve better can clash with our lived experience.
Ron: I like what Nijmie just said. I was just thinking about violence against and by impoverished people. But the ultimate violence is poverty.
Willie: One of the key problems is the conception that the poor themselves are the problem and not the system. Getting at the basic structural relationship to the economy—the necessity that we must be exploited to function and survive in this system and with technology even that becoming less of an option—means overcoming the notion that you’re poor because you aren’t worth anything. If we can break past the idea that the poor are poor because they deserve it or they’re lazy or dumb, the ideas that pervade people’s consciousness and operate against them understanding the structure of the problem, then we can really understand the problem and work toward a solution. But as long as those ideas about who are the poor and why they are poor focus on the poor themselves, it keeps people on the surface, focused on the expression of the problem and not the essence of the problem.
Ashley: We need a different value system that challenges (their) value system. Even liberals and progressives replicate (their) value system without even knowing it. We don’t say “we deserve this because we’re human beings and our lives are valuable and matter just from the basic point of being alive.” Rather we try to prove we will be productive members of this society if you just give us a chance to be productive. It’s a productivist ethos rather than saying that whole value system that says my life is valuable only when I give back profit because I’m able to work, it needs to be completely undermined.