There are 140 million people in the United States who are poor or one emergency away from being poor. As COVID-19 has laid bare that misery, Rev. William J. Barber II has embarked on a crusade to convince Americans and their political leaders to treat such widespread poverty as a moral failing that must be corrected.
In a briefing with the National Press Foundation, Barber – president of Repairers of the Breach, a board member of the NAACP and a long-time social justice leader – detailed for journalists how poverty affects old and young, black and white, urban and rural, and nameless statistics and the stories behind them.
Called by Cornel West “the closest person we have to Martin Luther King Jr. in our midst,” Barber was a keynote speaker for the 2016 Democratic National Convention and has helped organize social justice movements nationwide to agitate within the political system for increased taxes on the wealthy and a greater social safety.
“This is not about liberal or conservative. This is about right and wrong,” Barber said.
One of the key facts the public and the media miss is the scope of poverty among all racial groups, Barber said. Together, poor and low-income people number 140 million – 43% of the nation. Using a different measure of poverty, the Federal Reserve has found that nearly 40% of all Americans would struggle to cover an unexpected $400 expense.
And while a greater share of Black Americans are poor, the number of white people who are poor is higher. Beyond that, 38 million children are poor – “in the wealthiest nation in the world,” he said.
And that was before COVID.
“COVID has exposed the fissures and the wounds caused by systemic racism and poverty,” he said. “The wounds exist, and the virus exploits these wounds. … We are heading toward 50% of people living in poverty and low wealth.”
He urged journalists to pay more attention to poverty and inequality – both in terms of how often it is covered and how it is covered.
For decades, including during the 2016 presidential campaign, presidential general election debates have not covered how the political system should address poverty. “The media cannot continue to allow candidates to skirt these issues,” he said.
As for how the issue is covered: Barber said readers and viewers need to see people behind the numbers – not just the numbers. His groups highlight people struggling to avoid eviction, keep their families fed, find health care and pay for their medications. They showcase farmers in Kansas battling polluted groundwater and single mothers in Alabama trying to secure health care for their children.
Reporters should “tell the stories and let the stories tell the facts,” he said. “I think it has to be an integration.”
He also said the public and the media should pay attention to what he calls “five interlocking injustices” plaguing American society: systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, and distorted and misguided religious nationalism.
“It’s time, we believe, for what we call a moral revolution of values,” he said. “… You cannot say any longer America that poverty is a marginal issue when 43% of people are poor and low wealth,” he said.
“And it does not have to be this way,” he said.
For more information on the poverty and inequality reporting prizes offered in conjunction with these briefings, click here.
This program is funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Heising-Simons Foundation. NPF is solely responsible for the content.