Repairing the Breach

When then-candidate Joe Biden addressed a virtual assembly of the Poor People’s Campaign last fall, he promised that ending poverty would be more than an aspiration if he…

When then-candidate Joe Biden addressed a virtual assembly of the Poor People’s Campaign last fall, he promised that ending poverty would be more than an aspiration if he were to become the forty-sixth President of the United States; rather, he said, it would be a “theory of change to build a new economy that works for everyone.”

It is not enough to have a seat at the tables of power. We need policies that put food on the table.

When our campaign presented fourteen policy priorities to Biden’s transition team in December, the team reaffirmed this commitment. Reconstruction is not easy work, but millions of poor and low-income Americans know from experience what it must mean to “build back better.” The success of the Biden-Harris Administration will depend on its ability to work with the people for whom the system has not been working.

As a preacher, I know this to be the moral vision in our ancient biblical texts. “If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims . . . and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,” the prophet Isaiah says, then “you’ll be known as the repairer of the breach.”

This basic insight is echoed in our Constitution’s commitment to “a more perfect union” through, among other things, the establishment of justice. Repairing the breach and addressing the systemic wrongs we have inherited is the essential work of reconstruction.

We cannot build back as a nation without confessing the ways we were uniquely unprepared for the multiple crises we continue to face. Building a more just economy under the Biden-Harris Administration will require more than simply rejecting Trumpism or restoring dignity to the highest offices in our land.

While representation in presidential appointments—and throughout the executive branch of government—matters for the Black, white, brown, Asian, Native, female, and LGBTQ+ people who make up our broad fusion movement, we need more than representative faces in high places. We need leaders who understand racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism as interlocking injustices that disproportionately impact poor communities, even when people who look like us are in charge.

It is not enough to have a seat at the tables of power. We need policies that put food on the table.

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, “building back better” means targeting emergency relief to make sure the most vulnerable in our unequal society are vaccinated first, health care is available to all, and debts are forgiven.

Poor people are grieving the loved ones we have lost to this disease, even as millions of us worry how we will pay the bills and avoid eviction. We know from personal experience that COVID-19 deaths have been disproportionately Black, brown, Native, and poor. Poor and low-income Americans have been forced to continue working in essential service jobs while fellow citizens assert their “freedom” to shop and play without a mask. Like a contrast dye in our body politic, this pandemic has exposed how racism and poverty intersect to lock nearly half of us into second-class citizenship.

Poor and low-income people also know that building back better must look beyond emergency relief to bold action that fosters greater equity.

For too long, Democrats and Republicans have accepted the neoliberal logic that says radical inequality is a necessary byproduct of economic growth. For decades, we have watched the profits of the super-rich soar while wages for most Americans have stagnated.

During the same period, taxes of corporations and the wealthiest Americans have steadily declined as the military budget has ballooned. Government action to reverse the trend of increasing inequality will require bold action. For starters, we must overhaul the way we measure poverty in America. A new measure must replace the current poverty line to accurately reflect current conditions of poverty and economic insecurity. It must take into account race, age, familial status, ability, geography, and sexual orientation and establish a new basis for eligibility, appropriations, and allocations of resources.

Until we account for the fact that nearly half of Americans cannot make ends meet, we will not be able to build the collective will to address extreme inequality.

 But we know what the government can do to fight poverty, and we have the resources to do it. The Biden-Harris Administration can and must champion bold action to guarantee quality health care for all, regardless of preexisting conditions. This begins with expanding Medicaid in every state, securing Medicare, working toward enacting a public universal health care option, and building up our public health infrastructure. It also includes fully funding and expanding the Indian Health Service and ensuring quality health care for those who are incarcerated and detained.

We can also increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour and then commit to increase it annually until it reaches a true housing wage (estimated at $22 an hour in 2018). We can guarantee quality affordable housing to all Americans and enact a federal jobs program to build up investments, infrastructure, public institutions, climate resilience, energy efficiency, and socially beneficial industries and jobs in poor and low-income communities.

We can fight climate change by building a carbon neutral economy, ensure high-quality public education in every community, pass just immigration reform that creates a pathway to citizenship for undocumented neighbors, fulfill our commitments to sovereign Indigenous nations, and protect and expand voting rights for all Americans.

 We know we can afford these investments if the wealthy pay their fair share and the defense budget is reallocated to address the most pressing security needs of poor and low-income Americans. The Poor People’s Campaign has shown how $350 billion may be moved away from the war economy and put to use to fight COVID-19 and poverty, invest in health care, jobs, infrastructure, education, and more.

There are, after all, real costs to maintaining a vastly unequal economy. Every year, we lose $1 trillion to child poverty costs and $2.6 trillion in lost earnings from gender and racial wage gaps; we have lost $1.3 trillion in government revenue by lowering the corporate tax rate in 2017 and $6.4 trillion in endless wars; inaction on climate change may cost close to $3.3 trillion annually, and 250,000 people die from poverty and inequality every year. The cumulative financial costs of the pandemic are estimated to be $16 trillion.

We cannot afford the extreme inequality that is crippling American democracy, and we already have the money we need to invest in reconstruction. Our problem is that we are investing it in growth of the stock market and increased capacity for nuclear annihilation rather than the health and well-being of our democracy.

Many commentators have noted that Biden did not run as a progressive, and he beat opponents in the primary who advocated for more progressive policy positions. In the spirit of “bipartisan cooperation,” some have advised compromise and leadership that is not perceived to be too bold or “radical.”

But poor and low-income people cannot accept the assertion that basic equality and dignity are “radical” or “leftist” ideas. We have organized the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival in the so-called deep red counties of Appalachia and the rural Midwest, as well as in the Black Belt of Alabama and the housing projects of Washington, D.C., and New York City. Among people who are struggling to survive, these are not “left” and “right” issues. They are life and death issues. Our call is not to compromise but to a revolution of values. The compromises we have made for too long have led to a “normal” that is unacceptable.

We are under no illusion that the gridlock which has been so carefully cultivated by partisan and corporate interests for decades can be overcome by presidential decree. But we do know that leadership matters, and leaders who have been willing to listen to movements for change in this nation’s history have been able to change the conversation.

When I spoke with President Biden on his podcast during the campaign last year, I told him we needed leadership that could face the pain this pandemic has inflicted and be honest about all that it has exposed.

President Lincoln was no radical, but the abolitionists’ struggle, paired with his commitment to preserve the Union in the midst of great suffering, ultimately defeated slavery.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was not a radical, but he was a man who had been shaped by personal suffering. The Social Gospel movement that refused to accept the inequality of the Gilded Age pushed him to support a bold New Deal to bring the United States out of the Great Depression and into an era of relative equality that we have not surpassed in more than half a century.

The Biden-Harris Administration has an opportunity to lead us from the disaster of 2020 toward a bold new era of freedom and justice for all. This is something it cannot do alone, which is why groups including the Poor People’s Campaign have a key role to play. We stand ready to push the nation toward a reconstruction which is not only possible, but also necessary for American democracy.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.

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