"I am not speaking about the poor. I am not speaking for the poor. I am the poor."
Claudia De la Cruz was speaking at an April 10 press briefing in Washington, DC on behalf of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Inspired by a similar 1968 initiative led by Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, the campaign aims to lift up the voices of people like De la Cruz who've been most affected by our country's persistent poverty.
A descendant of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, De la Cruz was born in the South Bronx, the poorest Congressional district in the country. Median household income there is about $26,000, compared to $116,000 for the wealthiest district, which straddles Virginia's northern suburbs. She's a member of the national steering committee of the Poor People's Campaign and one of the state organizers for the New York City area.
At the briefing, the Poor People's Campaign and the Institute for Policy Studies co-released a 120-page report on poverty and inequality, systemic racism, ecological devastation, the war economy, and militarism. The Souls of Poor Folk draws on empirical data and interviews with grassroots leaders in each of these inter-related areas to make the case for reviving the 1968 campaign. The report points out, for example, that 140 million Americans today are poor or low-income.
"In a country that is filled with wealth, that has an abundant amount of resources, this is immoral and shameful," said De la Cruz.
The report also finds that one of the most dramatic trends since the original Poor People's Campaign is the rising gap between the poor and the extreme rich. While the official poverty rate is about the same today as it was 50 years ago, the share of national income going towards the top 1% of earners has nearly doubled. The 400 wealthiest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 64 percent of the US population (or 204 million people).
Nineteen percent of all US households (60 million people) have zero wealth or their debts exceeded the value of their assets (excluding the family car) -- and the percentage is even higher among people of color. Because of rising housing costs and wage stagnation, there is no state or county in the nation where an individual earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour can afford a two-bedroom apartment at market rent. Five decades after the original Poor People's Campaign, homelessness continues to be a severe problem in the world's richest nation, with the majority of homeless families headed by single women with young children.
Despite these overwhelmingly dismal indicators, De la Cruz explained that the new Poor People's Campaign is "organizing the hope of the poor, the hope that is often used and abused by politicians -- whether they are Republicans or Democrats -- the hope of a dignified life, our very right to exist."
Campaign Co-Chairs Rev. Liz Theoharis and Rev. William Barber also released an extensive set of preliminary demands for the campaign at the National Press Club event. Among the key priorities: "the repeal of the 2017 federal tax law and the reinvestment of those funds into social programming that helps all" and "relief from crushing household, student, and consumer debt."
For two years, Theoharis, Barber, and other anti-poverty leaders have traveled the country to build a base for the campaign among local faith communities and other grassroots organizations. At the briefing, they announced that 100 national groups have now also endorsed the initiative. Among them are several major labor unions, including SEIU, UFCW, AFSCME, and the United Steelworkers.
This coming Mother's Day, the Poor People's Campaign will launch 40 days of coordinated protests, including civil disobedience, in 30 states. On June 23, they will organize a mobilization in the nation's capital, just as the 1968 campaign did only a couple months after the assassination of Dr. King.
De la Cruz ended her statement by sending this message to politicians about America's poor: "We are here. And we're ready to take over. Because we may not run the United States, but we make it run. And we are ready to shut it down with our bodies."