A New Poor People’s Movement Must Have Leadership from Poor People

Imagine if the U.S. women’s suffragette movement had been led entirely by men, and its rank-and-file had been mostly male. The movement would surely have been far less galvanizing and assertive.  American women might still be denied the vote.

While some white activists made the ultimate sacrifice – their lives – on behalf of equal rights for African Americans, had the Civil Rights Movement been led and populated primarily by white people, that campaign would also have been far less passionate, insistent, and effective.  The Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts might still be languishing in Congress.

Likewise, if the LGBT crusade had merely waited for straight Americans to voluntarily grant them the right to marry, they would probably not be able to obtain a marriage license in any state, and certainly not in the 18 states where LGBT Americans can now legally marry.

In fact, no social movement in history has been won entirely by one people on behalf of another.

Thus it is absurd to believe that any attempt to finally end hunger or poverty in the U.S. can succeed without the significant involvement and leadership of low-income Americans.

Yet for decades, many of the upper-middle-class white activists who have led and populated the national anti-hunger movement have essentially taken the position that if they merely “put a face on hunger” – i.e., tell the stories of struggling Americans and display photos or videos of hungry Americans – then average Americans would be so moved and outraged that they would instantaneously support the public policies necessary to end the problem. While I am thankful that some organizations do give scholarships to allow some low-income individuals to attend anti-hunger conferences, most attendees are still upper-middle-class and white; relatively few hungry people – or even formerly hungry people – participate in these meetings, much less lead them. Can you image an American Federation of Teachers convention without educators or an American Legion convention without veterans? The failure of anti-hunger organizations to more fully include the people we represent has made us so weak that we have mostly failed to counter-act right wing policies that increase hunger.

While we certainly still have more work to do to help middle class Americans understand that it is in their self-interest to decrease poverty and hunger, our greatest single challenge is to mobilize our base, ensuring leadership and activism by many more of the 49 million Americans that suffer from food insecurity.

Imagine the political power behind 49 million Americans acting in unison to fight on their own behalf. After all, if you combined the 4 million members of the NRA, the 11 million members of the AFL-CIO member unions, the 1.5 million members of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the nearly 1 million members of the Sierra Club, and the 7 million members of the National Right to Life Committee, that’s still less than half the number of Americans who struggle against hunger.

We should have no illusions about the challenges in building a movement with the strong leadership and engagement of low-income Americans. Our entire society and our political system reinforce the cycles of empowerment for the wealthy and disempowerment for the impoverished.

For the nation’s elite, any activism is consistently rewarded. They vote regularly and donate to candidates.  As a result, elected officials tend to respond to their needs, which reinforces their perception that political activity matters, so they continue their political activism.

Low-income people can’t afford to donate to campaigns, and generally vote less frequently, so they get less attention from elected officials, which reinforces their original, negative, perception that politics don’t matter and their participation won’t make a difference anyway.  Even in Democratic Party primaries, wealthy people vote more frequently than low-income people.

Another challenge is that Americans who are low-income and food insecure don’t want to think of themselves as poor and hungry. In contrast, top goals of other movements were to make African American, women, and LGBT people proud of their identity. Yet the greatest goal of low-income and hungry people is usually to escape their condition. It’s darn hard to organize among individuals whose top goal is to no longer be a part of the group being organized.

But just because such organizing is difficult, doesn’t mean it isn’t both crucial and possible.

Witnesses to Hunger, started in 2008 by Dr. Mariana Chilton, is a research and advocacy project partnering with what they call the “real experts on hunger—mothers and caregivers of young children who have experienced hunger and poverty.” Through their photographs and testimonials, the Witnesses advocate for their own families and others and seek to create lasting changes on a local, state and national level.

In New York City, the group I manage, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, coordinates a Food Action Board (FAB) program to train low-income New Yorkers to lead advocacy efforts. FAB members lobby elected officials, testify at public meetings, and communicate through local and national media.

Our current FAB members are diverse. Darrel Bristow is a father of four who previously served in the Marines.  Mariluz Brito is a single mother of three who is unemployed and struggles against hunger, but even though she immigrated legally, she has not been in the U.S. long enough to qualify for federal SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits. Soraya Diaz is a part-time student at Lehman College in the Bronx, who lives with her elderly grandmother and mother. Ann Jenkins retired from her job as a receptionist at Albert Einstein Hospital and now needs SNAP to feed her family. Oralia Morand is a longtime volunteer in various soup kitchens and pantries who is the widow of a veteran. Jackie Williams is also an active volunteer, a single woman with breast cancer and a SNAP recipient, who performs freelance work when she can.

When these courageous fighters speak with elected officials or the media, the conversation is entirely different than when I do. They speak with an urgency and poignancy that no non-poor advocate can even approximate. They transform policy requests from abstract notions that can be negotiated away over time into flesh-and-blood demands that must be met immediately.

It’s much harder for Members of Congress to explain to a SNAP recipient who is standing right in front of them why they are proposing SNAP cuts than it is to explain it to a mere advocate.  For example, when the U.S. House of Representatives voted in January for a Farm Bill with more than $8 billion in SNAP cuts, two-thirds of House Republicans, and nearly half of House Democrats, voted for the cuts. But, because low-income people in New York City were so vocal in opposition to the cuts, as were local hunger groups, 10 out of the 11 House members from the city voted against them.

Both current events and history prove that direct advocacy by low-income Americans fighting for their own interests can have a massive impact.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., responding to near-starvation conditions found in parts of the U.S. in the 1960s, viewed access to food as a civil rights issue, saying: “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger?” King made the hunger issue a central component of his Poor People’s Campaign. After King’s assassination, the movement, led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, camped out on the Washington Mall to dramatize the issue and call for the expansion and creation of federal nutrition assistance programs. These efforts generated widespread media attention.

In the years following the encampment on the Mall, the president and Congress jointly expanded the Food Stamp Program and federal summer meals programs for children from relatively small pilot projects into large-scale programs, and created the National School Breakfast Program and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program which provides nutrition supplements to low-income pregnant woman and their small children.

These expansions succeeded strikingly in achieving their main goal: ending starvation conditions in America. In 1979, the Field Foundation sent a team of investigators back to many of the same parts of the U.S. in which they had previously found high rates of hunger in the late 1960s. They found dramatic reductions in hunger and malnutrition and concluded: “This change does not appear to be due to an overall improvement in living standards or to a decrease in joblessness in these areas… The Food Stamp Program, the nutritional components of Head Start, school lunch and breakfast programs, and…WIC have made the difference.”

These efforts proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that, when poor people band together for peaceful actions to push the democratic system to meet their needs, they can have spectacular results. Conversely, over the succeeding decades—when serious organizing efforts among low-income people lagged—our political system outsourced jobs, reduced wages, and cut poverty and nutrition programs, and, consequently, hunger soared.

That is why every poverty and hunger group in the country should begin or expand their efforts to better engage low-income people, whether such activities are modeled on the Witnesses to Hunger, our FABs, or other proven models. Foundations and private donors should also encourage these endeavors by funding them.

The time is long overdue for another, true Poor People’s Campaign. As is the case with every successful movement, the people with the most to gain will always be the activists who make the biggest difference.

Joel Berg is Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Photo by AP Photo/John Froschauer

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