America may be the richest country in the world, but that doesn’t make everyone rich.

According to the U.S. Census, 140 million people live below or just above the poverty line.

That’s 40 percent of the population. It’s more than the total number of voters in the last presidential election.

Organized, it would be a potent force that could remake society.

That’s the message of the Poor People’s Campaign, A National Call for Moral Revival, which came to Maine last week to build support for a march on Washington in June 2020.

Co-led by the Rev. William J. Barber II, a North Carolina civil rights leader known for his “Moral Mondays” protests outside the North Carolina state capitol, the movement is trying to build a coalition that crosses racial and cultural lines, based on a commitment to social and economic justice.

“We are a nonpartisan, moral-fusion movement,” he said, in a brief visit to the Press Herald’s office last week. “It’s a new level of common cause. I tell people that nobody would be spending so much energy trying to divide us if the were not afraid of our unity.”

Part of the challenge is getting people to recognize where they fit into the economic structure.

Poverty is usually defined by income, and the federal government sets a limit linked to family size to determine eligibility for some programs. These days, you are considered poor if your income is below the line, which is about $12,000 for an individual, or $25,000 a year for a family of four.

Roughly 11 percent of Mainers fall under that income line, or about 140,000 people.

But that does not begin to tell the story of economic insecurity Mainers face.

The federal poverty line was determined in the 1950s, when the cost of food reflected about a third of a family’s expenses. It does not take housing costs into account, or health care, transportation or education.

By the official measure, a family with a median income (just under $50,000 in Maine) is automatically considered middle class, even if they are juggling student loans, health insurance premiums, car payments and high rent.

That’s the kind of middle-class family that might not be able to pay a $400 surprise bill, like 40 percent of people in a poll conducted by the Federal Reserve last year. That’s the kind of middle-class family that might not always be able to put a good meal on the table.

That might be middle income, but it’s not middle class. It’s poor, or close enough to it.

According to census figures, 545,000 Mainers come from families that are poor or low income – a figure based on 150 percent of the poverty line ($18,700 for an individual or $38,600 for a family of four). This works out to 129,000 Maine children and 287,000 women.

The Poor People’s Campaign argues very convincingly that this is no accident.

Government policies that favor the rich, like the 2017 tax reform package, have created historic levels of economic inequality, and divisive politics have separated people on racial and religious grounds, keeping them from forming coalitions that could offset the power of wealth.

Anti-poverty programs are seen as primarily helping African Americans, even though the majority of poor families are white and have the most to gain if the balance were shifted.

The Poor People’s Campaign name comes from the project Martin Luther King Jr. was working on when he was murdered in 1968, but its real roots go a century deeper and speak to the kind of fundamental change it’s trying to effect.

Barber says his model is Reconstruction, when after the Civil War, freed slaves, poor whites and Northern abolitionists were given a brief chance to build a new, more just society. They were able to rewrite state constitutions in the southern states, build hospitals and guarantee universal public education, before they were undone by the white supremacists who regained power in the 1870s.

Barber calls the decade between the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act a “Second Reconstruction.” They ended legal segregation, but they did not achieve King’s dream of economic justice.

And he says we are in the beginning of a “Third Reconstruction,” which will put the needs of poor people – broadly defined – ahead of a small wealthy elite.

The new March on Washington, June 20, “the sunniest day of the year,” Barber says, will give the nation a good look at this movement and its capacity to change the course of history.


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