Room for the Poor, Morrigan Philips
This piece was originally posted on In Front and Center on February 10, 2012
Solidarity means that even if you win, you stand with everyone until everyone wins.
Poverty is, as the most basic definition states, the lack of resources sufficient for someone to live comfortably in society. For many, credit cards and loans have kept them in reasonable enough comfort that they have been able to put off acknowledging the grim realities of our economic system. Much of this myth of comfort and stability has fallen apart in recent years as the economic crisis has pushed more people into the uncomfortable position of realizing how close they are to a financial crisis of their own. Meanwhile, according to new poverty measures and census data, rates of poverty, particularly in rural communities and urban communities of color have risen to a 52 year high.
Complicated financial games and double speak mask much of what has been fueling the financial crisis. But as more and more people have found themselves with no work, no money and mounting debt problems, the financial tricks and gimmicks that have been keeping this wreck going seem more like smoke and mirrors.
Fueled by outrage over economic gluttony and seaming impunity on Wall Street, the Occupy moment took hold of a piece of anger lying deep in the hearts of masses of people. The proverbial pinch was being felt by too many. Pop! A would-be movement sprang forth representing those whom the promise of prosperity in exchange for hard work had been made and broken.
It should be made clear that Occupy Wall Street and the multitude of Occupies that have come alive around the US are not orchestrated nor primarily constituted by financially comfortable, gainfully employed, resource rich individuals. Plenty of unemployed, underemployed and broke ass people are taking on roles of organizers within Occupies. There are also those who rely on various forms of public assistance, both safety net programs like public housing and social security programs like unemployment. Further, the camps drew many from those forgotten and neglected corners of our communities: the houseless, those with mental health issues and substance use problems. Where camps remain these communities members also remain.
But to be clear – Occupy is not a poor people’s movement. “How long are you broke before you are poor?” This was the question, posed by a Unitarian Universalist minister and organizer in Boston, Jason Lydon, while walking from one meeting to another. He, like many, feels being broke, struggling with cash flow and financial uncertainty as being a different identity than that of being poor.
As Occupy Wall Street and then the local Occupy Boston began to gain their legs and solidify their place in the public discourse, so too did an analysis. Corporate personhood, bank bail outs, executive bonuses and general Wall Street excess at the expense of democracy were at the top of the list of grievances. Personal stories have been told: stories of unemployment lasting two or more years, home foreclosures, bankruptcy due to medical expenses, untenable student loan debts and more.
These are the stories of people for whom the promise of security was broken. These too are those who are broke but for whom that sense of being able to live comfortably in society is somewhat attainable. But for thousands, a promise of security was never made. No part of the system has ever worked in their favor and for decades the economy has failed them in boom or bust.
Amidst seeming abundance of stuff and prosperity, the poor make a patchwork living that is a shadow of what many are able to attain. In our overly commercialized and consumption-driven society, being poor can mean being left out and left behind. Left to create and build as best one can with limited resources but never looking like everyone else. Never seeing your life reflected back to you on TV, in the news, in advertisements. Not even close. This alone makes it less likely that the poor will take up in protest with Occupy. The society that Occupiers are mounting a defense of never included the poor in the same way.
But that does not mean the poor will not organize and rise up. Poor peoples movements have and continue to play an important role social and community change work. Here is a small list of examples out of a deep and rich history:
Coalition of Immokalee Workers
The National Welfare Rights Movement
Domestic Workers Bill of Rights
Take Back the Land
City Life/Vida Urbana anti-foreclosure organizing in Boston
United Farm Workers
The unemployed workers movement during the great depression
Poor People’s Campaign organized by Martin Luther King, JR and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign
All of Us or None: An organization of prisoners, former prisoners and felons, to combat discrimination.
Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement
Western Regional Advocacy Project
Statistically speaking, the poor hold the space at the bottom of the 99%, earning less then $22,314 for a family of four. For an individual, the poverty threshold comes in at $10,890 a year in earnings, or around $900 a month. For most federal and state programs individuals are eligible for assistance within 200% to 300% of the federal poverty line. More than a reflection of earnings, the poor are a class unto themselves. The poor not only have precarious livelihoods that experience frequent economic disruption but also live in communities where there is generally less stability. Poor communities are often isolated either by location (i.e. rural isolation) or through systematic disenfranchisement. Examples include poor public transportation options, the closing of public hospitals in poor communities, and a lack of supermarkets, parks, walkable streets and sound infrastructure.
Making Room for the Poor
In his state of the Union Address President Obama mentioned poverty only once, and that was in passing. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney recently said he is “ not concerned about the very poor”. In today’s political discourse, the loss of the middle class dream that is most lamented. Every political candidate, pundit and journalist seems to be looking to champion the middle class. But no one wants to champion the poor or even acknowledge their existence. This goes, too, for much of the discourse emerging from the Occupy movement.
Just as much of society excludes the collective experience of the poor so too has Occupy. From the very beginning of Occupy Boston, there was a striking lack of an analysis of poverty being present in the discussions and messaging of actions. Demands and grievances have focused on personal gains rather then collective objectives: a middle-class desire for debt relief; the focus on individual corporations or banks rather than on the system of capitalism; a practice of policing individuals without a larger reflection on provocateurs and a collective reflection on the societal disrespect toward the mentally ill, homeless or substance addicted. So what would an analysis of poverty within Occupy look like?
Historical reference points: Messaging and demands would be rooted in a historical analysis of years of cuts to social welfare spending and the toll those cuts have taken on communities of color in the U.S. Economic recovery, when it does come, often leaves scars in poor communities that look like cuts to social service and public welfare spending, including funding for economic development, housing, food assistance, aid to the elderly, education and job training. Additionally, since the Reagan era, poor communities have been blamed, bullied, marginalized and subjected to slander in the media.
An understanding that this is not the first nor last moment in which people will face economic hardships: things have been getting worse on the ground for decades. This too is not the first time people have risen up (see above for just a sampling poor people’s movements). Both the political and popular discourse around poverty in the United States has always boiled down to the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. The U.S. welfare state was birthed out of a legacy of Elizabethan Poor Laws which placed the onus of one’s poverty squarely on one’s shoulders. The only ones deserving of assistance were widows with children and anyone who could not work. The influence of this philosophy is felt throughout the history of the creation of the very limited U.S. welfare state. There is no culture of poverty. But there is a culture of reluctance and outright disdain for aid to the poor in American political discourse.
The meme of the 1% and the 99% would be more actively developed and nuanced: the 99% includes people earning upwards of $400,000 a year. It also includes people who went to Harvard and while likely buried in debt, they have social access and privilege not enjoyed by many. The idea that the 99% meme is useful and popular should not overshadow the importance of examining power and privilege within the 99%. For example, the foreclosure crisis is amounting to the largest loss of land in the black community since the African slave trade tore people from their land. Unemployment among black men is at Depression era levels. Again, economic hardship hits some communities harder due to historical disenfranchisement, oppression and economic exclusion. Economic inequality is better represented in the U.S. by looking at the 10% at the top versus the bottom 20%.
Moving beyond individual interests to a collective understanding of shared interests for economic justice: protecting and improving social safety net and entitlement programs such as unemployment insurance, food stamps, foreclosure protection and other social safety net programs, needs to be the context in which other demands such as financial industry regulation and an end to corporate personhood are placed. Messaging and tactics deployed against direct attacks to the social safety net that hit at poor communities the hardest with that distinctive Occupy analysis that ties economic hardship to big finance, could be powerful. A move in this direction would also create an opening for solutions to immediate needs of people now and in the long-term. There is a history worth noting in the U.S. of social movements winning demands that aid those in the middle more so as to relieve the pressure and slow the movement. Solidarity means that even if you win, you stand with everyone until everyone wins.
Thinking global and local: the analysis that Occupy is formulating should invoke economic justice and economic rights and be born from the messages that have been raised up by poor people’s movements in the U.S. and Global South for decades. Further, there needs to be the acknowledgement that the relative prosperity here in the U.S. relies on the exploitation and subjugation of the Global South.
A shift in praxis, or how the lessons and skills of Occupy are learned and acted upon: The way in which the economic crisis is conceived of and organized against needs to be informed by a systemic analysis of power, culture, history and economics that moves deeper into a social change model, one that re-envisions how our society meets the needs of everyone. Ending corporate personhood, for example, will not restore funding to much needed programs and services. It will not restore dignity and comfort to those left in the cold each night by homelessness. Only a cultural and societal change that internalizes an analysis of poverty and the poor will do that.
Diversity of organizing structures to be inclusive of people of homeless and other economically stigmatized communities: much of the conflict that consumed the Dewey Square Occupy Boston camp revolved around the role homeless people played in the camp. Sometimes called junkies, other times called trouble, from the get-go there was little capacity within the camp to deal with the challenges. The typical structures of Occupy with the General Assemblies, consensus process and working group structures have limits when it comes to being inclusive of people who live in those dim and oft forgotten parts of society. The promise of meals everyday, protection in numbers and community drew the homeless to Occupy camps. For those struggling with mental health issues, living on the streets or in the shelter system and those whose struggle is compounded with substance use and addiction live frustrating lives everyday. Occupy camps also offered the promise of a space to be a part of addressing their needs. But organizing structures that were built at Occupy Boston mostly showed the divide between the priorities of the middle of the 99% and the needs of the bottom 10%. Violent and admittedly unstable personalities were present at Occupy Boston, but it was those personalities among the houseless (houseless, not homeless,Op is the preferred term of members of the community active in Occupy Boston) population that drew the most scorn. Plenty of young white, housed and comfortable men showed outright oppressive tendencies. But it was not these particpants in Occupy Boston whom the Good Neighbor Agreement was directed. Solutions have been sought within the established process and almost exclusively targeted problematic personalities within the houseless community. What is more use of the the police and criminal justice system has been viewed as an acceptable option without discussion of the role these forces play in the oppression and ciminalization of homelessness. There are many organizing models and many examples of empowering organizing work that don’t rely on forcing marginalized and unheard communities with varying capacities to fit into our preferred process. Occupy needs to examine how its processes can and often do recreate the societal norm of excluding the voices of people living on the fringes.
An analysis of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and its role in poor communities: the PIC, the criminal justice system and the police serve as methods of oppression and destruction in poor communities. The 99% analysis needs to acknowledge that for the bottom 10%-20% the police, prison guards and other agents of the criminal justice system are not allies and are certainly not “in it together” with poor communities of color. This is not about income but about the role these agents play in the criminalization of poverty. The approach to addressing inequality and societal disparities must not only look at income but also the roles people play in the systems of inequality. Occupy for Prisoners is an excellent example of solidarity between Occupy Oakland and prison abolition activists in recognition that there are many thousands locked up on the inside that can not join us in our meetings or in the streets as we fight for justice.
At the end of the day, Occupy needs to own who and what it is. It does not need to be a poor people’s movement. Plenty of people active in Occupies throughout the country are hurting and letting that hurt fuel their rage and conviction. But it will not serve anyone for Occupy to continue without an analysis of poverty. This is about the top 10% versus the bottom 20%. Occupy can choose to align itself with either. But an Occupy movement that joins its interests with the interests of a poor people’s movement in a shared vision of economic justice would be remarkable and bold.
In turn, anti-poverty activist, organizers and community members need to dig deep and assess how the many voices, campaigns, organizations, groups and networks can be joined in a great new national anti-poverty poor people’s movement for economic justice. We all deserve better, but what is better for some should not come without, or at the expense of, the poor.
Morrigan Phillips is a community social worker and organizer in Boston, MA. She works with Suvivors Inc./Mass.Welfare Rights Union and has been involved with Occupy Boston as a non-violent direct action trainer and member of the Health Justice working group. Morrigan can be found on twitter at @mbotastic.