The Real Epidemic is Poverty

The United States is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, yet millions of American families have had to set up crowdfunding sites to try to raise money for their loved ones’ medical bills. Millions more can buy unleaded gasoline for their car, but they can’t get unleaded water in their homes. Almost half of America’s workers—whether in Appalachia or Alabama, California or Carolina—work for less than a living wage. And as school buildings in poor communities crumble for lack of investment, America’s billionaires are paying a lower tax rate than the poorest half of households.

With the coronavirus pandemic bringing our country’s equally urgent poverty crisis into stark relief, we cannot simply wait for change. It must come now.

This moral crisis is coming to a head as the coronavirus pandemic lays bare America’s deep injustices. While the virus itself does not discriminate, it is the poor and disenfranchised who will experience the most suffering and death. They’re the ones who are least likely to have health care or paid sick leave, and the most likely to lose work hours. And though children appear less vulnerable to the virus than adults, America’s nearly forty million poor and low-income children are at serious risk of losing access to food, shelter, education, and housing in the economic fallout from the pandemic.

The underlying disease, in other words, is poverty, which was killing nearly 700 of us every day in the world’s wealthiest country, long before anyone had heard of COVID-19.

The moral crisis of poverty amid vast wealth is inseparable from the injustice of systemic racism, ecological devastation, and our militarized war economy. It is only a minority rule sustained by voter suppression and gerrymandering that subverts the will of the people. To redeem the soul of America—and survive a pandemic—we must have a moral fusion movement that cuts across race, gender, class, and cultural divides.

The United States has always been a nation at odds with its professed aspirations of equality and justice for all—from the genocide of original inhabitants to slavery to military aggression abroad. But there have been periods in our history when courageous social movements have made significant advances. We must learn from those who’ve gone before us as we strive to build a movement that can tackle today’s injustices—and help all of us survive.


In the aftermath of the Civil War, African Americans who had just escaped slavery joined with white allies to form coalitions that won control of nearly every southern legislature. These Reconstruction-era political alliances enacted new constitutions that advanced moral agendas, including, for the first time, the right to public education.

During the Great Depression, farmers, workers, veterans, and others rose up to demand bold government action to ease the pain of the economic crisis on ordinary Americans. This led to New Deal policies, programs, and public works projects that we still benefit from today, such as Social Security and basic labor protections.

Pushed by these movements, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt even called in 1944 for an economic bill of rights, declaring: “We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.”

During what I like to call the “Second Reconstruction” over the following decades, a coalition of blacks and progressive whites began dismantling the racist Jim Crow laws and won key legislative victories, including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act.

With each period of advancement has come a formidable backlash. This is how we find ourselves today, in the year 2020, with levels of economic inequality as severe as during the original Gilded Age a century ago. Since the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby decision, Americans have had fewer voting rights protections than we did fifty-five years ago, while thanks to the earlier Citizens United ruling, corporations can invest unlimited sums of money to influence elections.

In response to fair tax reforms, the wealthy have used their economic clout to slash their IRS bills, cutting the top marginal income tax rate from more than 90 percent in the 1950s to 37 percent today. In response to the hard-fought wins of the labor movement, corporate lobbyists have rammed through one anti-worker law after another, slashing the share of U.S. workers protected by unions nearly in half, from 20.1 percent in 1983 to just 10.5 percent in 2018.

Decades after Depression-era reforms, Wall Street fought successfully to deregulate the financial system, paving the way for the 2008 financial crash that caused millions to lose their homes and livelihoods. And the ultra-rich and big corporations have also managed to dominate our campaign finance system, making it easier for them to buy off politicians who commit to rigging the rules against the poor and the environment, and to suppress voting rights, making it harder for the poor to fight back.

Our military budgets continue to rise, now grabbing more than fifty-three cents of every discretionary federal dollar to pay for wars abroad and pushing our ability to pay for health care for all, for a Green New Deal, for jobs and education, and infrastructure, further and further away.

In short, the official measure of poverty doesn’t begin to touch the depth and breadth of economic hardship in the world’s wealthiest nation, where 40 percent of us can’t afford a $400 emergency.

The wars that those military budgets fund continue to escalate. They don’t make us safer, and they’ve led to the deaths of thousands of poor people in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, and beyond, as well as the displacement of millions of refugees, the destruction of water sources, and the contamination of the environments of whole countries.

The only ones who benefit are the millionaire CEOs of military companies, who are getting richer every year on the more than $350 billion—half the military budget—that goes directly to their corporations. In the meantime 23,000 low-ranking troops earn so little that they and their families qualify for food stamps.

Key to these rollbacks: controlling the narrative about who is poor in America and the world. It is in the interest of the greedy and the powerful to perpetuate myths of deservedness—that they deserve their wealth and power because they are smarter and work harder, while the poor deserve to be poor because they are lazy and intellectually inferior.

It’s also in their interest to perpetuate the myth that the poverty problem has largely been solved and so we needn’t worry about the rich getting richer—even while our real social safety net is full of gaping holes. This myth has been reinforced by our deeply flawed official measurements of poverty and economic hardship.

The way the U.S. government counts who is poor and who is not, frankly, is a sixty-year-old mess that doesn’t tell us what we need to know. It’s an inflation-adjusted measure of the cost of a basket of food in 1955 relative to household income, adjusted for family size—and it’s still the way we measure poverty today.

But this measure doesn’t account for the costs of housing, child care, or health care, much less twenty-first-century needs like internet access or cell phone service. It doesn’t even track the impacts of anti- poverty programs like Medicaid or the earned income tax credit, obscuring the role they play in reducing poverty.

In short, the official measure of poverty doesn’t begin to touch the depth and breadth of economic hardship in the world’s wealthiest nation, where 40 percent of us can’t afford a $400 emergency.


In a report with the Institute for Policy Studies, the Poor People’s Campaign found that nearly 140 million Americans were poor or low-income—including more than a third of white people, 40 percent of Asian people, approximately 60 percent each of indigenous people and black people, and 64 percent of Latinx people. LGBTQ people are also disproportionately affected.

 Further, the very condition of being poor in the United States has been criminalized through a system of racial profiling, cash bail, the myth of the Reagan-era “Welfare Queen,” arrests for things such as laying one’s head on a park bench, passing out food to unsheltered people, and extraordinary fines and fees for misdemeanors such as failing to use a turn signal, and simply walking while black or trans.

We are a nation crying out for security, equity, and justice. We need racial equity. We need good jobs. We need quality public education. We need a strong social safety net. We need health care to be understood as a human right for all of us. We need security for people living with disabilities. We need to be a nation that opens our hearts and neighborhoods to immigrants. We need safe and healthy environments where our children can thrive instead of struggling to survive.

With the coronavirus pandemic bringing our country’s equally urgent poverty crisis into stark relief, we cannot simply wait for change. It must come now.

America is an imperfect nation, but we have made important advancements against interconnected injustices in the past.

We can do it again, and we know how. Now is the time to fight for the heart and soul of this democracy.

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Rev. Dr. William Barber II | Radio Free (2022-10-02T03:34:16+00:00) » The Real Epidemic is Poverty. Retrieved from https://www.radiofree.org/2020/03/30/the-real-epidemic-is-poverty/.
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" » The Real Epidemic is Poverty." Rev. Dr. William Barber II | Radio Free - Accessed 2022-10-02T03:34:16+00:00. https://www.radiofree.org/2020/03/30/the-real-epidemic-is-poverty/
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» The Real Epidemic is Poverty | Rev. Dr. William Barber II | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2020/03/30/the-real-epidemic-is-poverty/ | 2022-10-02T03:34:17+00:00
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