Foot soldiers in Poor People’s Campaign bring anti-poverty cause to capital

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-21-2023 4:58 PM

NORTHAMPTON — On his travels around Northampton, city resident David Edwards sees people he once went to school with or worked alongside whose lives have been upended by poverty, now living on the streets or regularly relying on the help of social service agencies.

“It sometimes makes me wonder if it will happen to me, too,” Edwards said.

That worry about his friends and acquaintances with limited economic resources, along with his own welfare, is why Edwards is in Washington D.C. this week as one of 39 members of the Massachusetts contingent that’s part of the Poor People’s Campaign Moral Action Poverty Congress. Economically strapped people and faith leaders from more than 30 states are making direct appeals to their federal leaders to solve the crisis of poverty.

“We need to look into the causes of poverty and systematic racism, and how it affects people,” Edwards said.

The Poor People’s Campaign aims to force poverty onto the nation’s agenda heading into the 2024 elections, as people lose Medicaid, the expanded child tax credit has expired, and the federal minimum wage has stayed stuck at $7.25 per hour for almost 14 years — and while the recent debt ceiling crisis, organizers contend, was resolved on the backs of poor people.

Greenfield resident Judy Schiavone, who got involved in the Poor People’s Campaign in February 2020 following a 3½-month period in which she was homeless and temporarily slept on a friend’s couch, was among those from Franklin County at the capital.

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“We have the power to change our great country and make it even better,” Schiavone said. “No one has to be poor and marginalized, and beyond surviving, we want to thrive.”

Schiavone’s experience has included dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and losing brothers, both from their service in the Vietnam War and to addiction. In the campaign, she has found a community of low-income people who she believes can help change government policies.

Schiavone said she was also joining the cause as a member of the LGBTQ community and a person with a disability who feels threatened by right-wing economic policies and hateful rhetoric from religious nationalists. She reflected on her experiences in 1979, 10 years after Stonewall, and being spit on during a Pride march in Hartford.

“I will not be silent anymore and will join with others across our country, to demand that our legislators do the right thing,” Schiavone said.

Sarah Ahern, also of Greenfield, grew up in poverty and has been among the working poor to encourage people to speak out for themselves, as she has done as an addiction recovery advocate. The campaign, she said, is human-centered — at its heart, a call to “fight poverty, not the poor.”

“This movement really speaks to who I am and where my soul is,” Ahern said.

Bishop William J. Barber II, who co-chairs the campaign, said poverty is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States and there has been a scarcity of will to address it, rather than a scarcity of resources.

“It is a moral travesty and a detriment to the soul of our nation that poverty kills more people than homicide, yet the powers that be don’t want to address it,” Barber said.

The Rev. Liz Theoharis, who also co-chairs the campaign, said the demand is for dignified jobs with living wages, and better housing, education and health care.

Statistics show Massachusetts has 1.36 million poor and low-income voters and that 36% of residents, or 2.4 million people, are poor or low income.

The Poor People’s Campaign Moral Action Poverty Congress began on Monday, when Barber led a discussion with Yale School of Public Health assistant professor Greg Gonsalves and University of California-Riverside professor David Brady, who authored a recent report on poverty and mortality. Edwards was present for this and appreciated being part of a unified group of people aiming to combat the lack of housing for the poor, getting people to a livable wage and supporting Indigenous peoples’ rights.

As part of the effort, U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee and Pramila Jayapal this week reintroduced the “Third Reconstruction” bill to initiate large-scale federal efforts to end poverty and dismantle racist policies and structures, following efforts in the wake of the Civil War and the civil rights movement.

Campaign participants met with members of the Massachusetts delegation, from U.S. Reps. Richard Neal and Jim McGovern to aides for U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren.

In speaking with McGovern, Ahern said she appreciates that his priorities, including focusing on hunger, align with the Poor People’s Campaign, and that he spoke eloquently about the waste in military spending and possibly redirecting that money toward social programs.

Ahern said she is confident that elected officials will hear their appeals. “We are foot soldiers who are armed with data,” she said.

“We are thankful for his support, but will hold his feet to the fire,” Schiavone said of meeting with McGovern.

The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival began in 2018 as a nonviolent movement based upon the same principles as the Poor People’s Campaign launched by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shortly before his death in 1968. Among those principles are the right to jobs that provide living wages, the right to health, an end to systemic racism, a livable planet, and shifting national priorities away from war and significant military spending.

A similar effort occurred a year ago ahead of a massive voter mobilization drive for the midterm elections.

Edwards said when he returns to Northampton, he will use his experience in Washington D.C. to bolster the work he already does on eradicating poverty in the community.

“I plan to build it up much more,” he said, “and to build up a platform.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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