Changing the Narrative

A sobering national audit and a renewed call for moral revival 50 years after the Poor People’s Campaign

By Mike Dorn, OFM Cap.

In April the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) released a 123-page comprehensive analysis of the American experience of marginalized peoples within our borders. The Souls of Poor Folk  addresses racism, poverty, and the war economy, and stands as a re-launch and renewal of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign begun by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Our Capuchin brother Cardinal Sean O’Malley participated in that original campaign, and today Capuchins and other religious are challenged to get involved as they are able. The movement will be continuing past the June 23rd March to Fight Poverty on the National Mall, and individuals can keep updated by visiting  Reviewing the audit will help us in our daily work as Capuchin friars ministering to those on the margins as we work to repair and rebuild relationships of justice. Consider these staggering findings from the report:

On Institutional Racism, Poverty, Militarism and Ecological Devastation:

  • Wealth Gap- “The 400 wealthiest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 64 percent of the U.S. population (or 204 million people).” Another way to approach this is to consider Warren Buffet’s piece six years ago in the NY Times— “[The highest 400 incomes in the U.S.] made an average of $202 million in 2009, which works out to a “wage” of $97,000 per hour.”
  • Voter suppression & minimum wage laws-  Since 2010, 23 states have “adopted some form of voter suppression law and 25 states have pre-emptied cities from passing minimum wage laws.”
  • Prisons/Police Brutality- There has been a “tenfold increase in annual federal discretionary spending on prisons since 1976.” The number of incarcerated has jumped “from 187,914 in 1968 to 1,458,000 in 2016”; “Young Black men are nine times more likely to be killed by the police than other Americans.” [The DOJ reported that] “ninety-five percent of the growth in the incarcerated population since 2000 is the result of an increase in the number of defendants unable to make bail. This is also the result of the fact that bail amounts themselves have increased over the years.”
  • Immigration- “Federal spending on immigration, deportation, and border policies increased from $2 billion to $17 billion and deportations increased tenfold between 1976 and 2015.”
  • Workers unions- “Between 1968 and 2017, the share of U.S. workers in unions fell from 24.9 percent to 10.7 percent.” In this same period, “hourly compensation increased just 12.3 percent, while productivity increased 73.7 percent.” 

Poverty- “Nearly 41 million Americans live below the federal poverty line. Nearly 140 million people (43.5 percent) are either poor or low-income under the alternative Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM).”

Debt- “Medical debt is the number one cause of personal bankruptcy filings, with an estimated 40 percent of Americans taking on debt because of medical issues.” Student debt now amounts to $1.34 trillion and affects about 44 million Americans.”

  • War Economy- “Out of every dollar in federal discretionary spending, 53 cents goes towards the military, with just 15 cents on anti-poverty programs. In 2016, the CEOs of the top five military contractors earned on average $19.2 million—more than 90 times the $214,000 earned by a U.S. military general with 20 years of experience, including housing allowances and extra combat pay and approximately 640 times the amount earned by Army privates in combat. By September 2017, an average of 20 veterans were still dying by suicide each day.”
  • Environmental Devastation- The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) was responsible for emitting 72 percent of the U.S. government’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 (with all overseas emissions exempt from this total).  

In the past five weeks, national protests organized by the PPC have resulted in nearly 2,000 people arrested for non-violent civil resistance, and the campaign has assembled thousands of supporters at over 30 state capitols. One of the great strengths of the movement has been its unifying spirit of persons across the lines of gender, color, faith, socioeconomic and employment status.

Campaign organizers point out that this movement is not a commemoration but a continuation and a building up of the original movement's call for systemic justice. It is an antidote to the ‘divide and conquer’ paradigm that too often separates impacted peoples across lines of exaggerated distinction, thus strengthening the growth of injustice for all. As the report states, “During slavery, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and some Quakers and white evangelicals got together and formed a fusion movement that brought about abolition. When women didn’t have the right to vote, Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton got together, and they stood together until suffrage was won. Every major social movement in this nation’s history has won, in the end, because a moral, fusion coalition came together and refused to stand down in the face of tyranny. It’s our time now.”


Author’s Note: The Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order supports the PPC only in areas that are consistent with the views and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. All statistics are excerpted from The Souls of Poor Folk.