Poor People's Campaign rally, Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. USA (Screenshot via YouTube)

The #RaiseTheRate social media campaign to raise Newstart ended as lobbying efforts were swept aside by the media cycle, whereas the U.S. Poor People's Campaign is based on a grassroots movement, writes Patrick Keane.

THIS YEAR, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) launched a social media campaign to raise the rate of the Newstart allowance, known as #RaiseTheRate.

The Greens backed calls from ACOSS for an increase of $75 in the rate of Newstart and #RaiseTheRate even received support from former Prime Minister John Howard.

However, the campaign had little impact on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull or the Minister for Human Services Michael Keenan. Keenan described the current rate of Newstart as a "sustainable welfare safety net". And, despite the implausible claims of Victorian Liberal MP Julia Banks, it is difficult to find anyone that believes they can live on $39 a day. 800,000 Australians "live" on Newstart and about half live below the poverty line.

'The Poor People’s Campaign addresses the myth ... that poverty is the fault of the poor.'

So one might describe Newstart as a "safety net" if that net was several centimetres below the ground. More disappointing, perhaps, was the Opposition’s failure to make any tangible commitment except to review the system if elected.

Earlier this year, in May in the United States, the Union Theological Seminary launched a very different campaign to address poverty called “The Poor People’s Campaign”. The Poor People’s Campaign is a revival of the movement first run by Martin Luther King Jr., 50 years earlier. King’s original movement consisted of a 1968 rally, in which the civil rights leader set up a protest camp of about 3,000 people on the National Mall.

The camp remained there for six weeks. This year, thousands of unemployed, civil rights advocates, low-wage workers and religious leaders kicked off massive protests across 36 U.S. States over 40 days, from May until the 23rd of June. About 1,300 people were arrested in acts of non-violent civil disobedience. The lead organisers of the campaign are the Reverend William Barber, a minister and board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), and the Reverend Liz Theoharis, co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice. (The Poor People’s Campaign also draws on a powerful musical tradition, Poor Peoples Campaign Songbook.)

What is the Poor People’s Campaign about?

50 years ago, Dr King’s Poor People's Campaign asked the U.S. Federal Government to invest $30 billion into helping poor Americans by committing to full employment, a guaranteed annual income and more low-income housing. The Poor People’s Campaign demanded a fundamentally different vision of society.

In 1967, Dr King clarified the purpose of the campaign:

"We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights — an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society … We have been in a reform movement, but after Selma and the voting rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognise that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power."

This year, the Poor People’s Campaign asks are not so different, and the campaign’s official demands include Federal and State living-wage laws, an end to anti-union and anti-workers’ rights efforts, equity in education, Medicaid expansion, accessible housing, and 100% renewable energy. The campaign also addresses other causes of the power imbalance, such as voter suppression laws and mass incarceration.

The campaign is also about telling a story. The story explains the need for a radical redistribution of political and economic power, and a deeper moral analysis of national perceptions of poverty and racism. The Poor People’s Campaign addresses the myth common in the United States, and on the rise in Australia, that poverty is the fault of the poor.

This myth contends that the wealthy are in fact “better” people and the poor deserving of their lot. There is a similar logic that contends some women deserve sexual violence, or that victims of domestic violence want to be abused. This "logic" is also described as "victim blaming". The disadvantage experienced by First People’s is their fault, according to this logic, because they were displaced and dispossessed by colonisation. They lost their homelands to European civilisation, so they deserve their dispossession and disadvantage, so this logic goes.

Why is it necessary?

In the United States today, more than 40 million people live below that poverty line — that’s almost a fifth of the population. One in every two Americans is poor or low-income, while millions of children and adults continue to live without access to healthcare, housing, clean water or good jobs.

Dr King called for the first campaign because of what he called the “Triplets of Evil” — systemic racism, poverty, and the war economy and militarism. Since 1968, these evils have deepened in America. A report released this year by the Institute for Policy Studies, 'The Souls of Poor Folks' points out that since 1968, the top 1% share of national income has nearly doubled, while the official poverty rate for all U.S. families has merely inched up and down. The 400 wealthiest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 64% of the U.S. population (or 204 million people). The Poor People’s Campaign found that the use of military force against, usually, poor and non-whites abroad paralleled the use of State-sanctioned violence at home.

How does it work?

The Poor People’s Campaign is a struggle for power rather than simply better healthcare or social security or working conditions. The campaign is different from some other movements, because it doesn’t have specific limits and is not structured around an election timetable. This is because it is supposed to be building a movement rather than a moment, so it is about training thousands of activists for the future and not simply campaigning for the present. The campaign includes unions but also includes groups sometimes excluded by traditional labour movements. This is important, because of the decline of union memberships since the first Poor People’s campaign 50 years ago.

What has it achieved?

The success of the campaign, wrote Gordon Mantler, a professor of social justice at George Washington University, in Washington Post, should be measured in the connections and networks forged through the protests and state-level efforts rather than in any national measures passed. Although the 40 days of protest have only just ended, already Massachusetts Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congressman Elijah Cummings from Maryland led a two-hour hearing on Capitol Hill to examine the effects of poverty in America.

The Poor People’s campaign has achieved more than the Raise the Rate campaign. Superficially, the campaign to #RaiseTheRate and the Poor People’s campaign are similar. They both demand federal governments act to counter poverty.

There are superficial differences, such as the fact that #RaiseTheRate has a secular leadership and no soundtrack. But there are more crucial differences between the two campaigns. #RaiseTheRate only mobilises support through a hashtag and letters to MPs or the local paper. It is primarily a government lobbying effort by NGOs through the media. The #RaiseTheRate campaign ended as the lobbying efforts of NGOs were swept aside by the media cycle. Because there was no grassroots organising effort, there is no momentum or direction, there is little strategy and little, if any, "story" behind it.

Why does Australia need a Poor People’s Campaign?

Some might wonder whether Australia needs a similar campaign to address systemic poverty, racism and environmental destruction:

Almost a quarter of the Great Barrier Reef is dead. In 2016 10,000-year-old Tasmanian forests burned to ashes. This year, Australia leads the world in species extinction. But the destruction of our natural world didn’t make most of us rich. Australian living standards have not risen since 2011. The OECD shows that Australian homes are more unaffordable than ever. Power prices doubled since the Liberal-National Coalition was elected in 2013.

Just as banks earned record profits for the third year in a row, wages did not grow in Australia. There is no indication the long-term trajectory of inequality will be addressed and, altogether, three million Australians live below the poverty line.

Liberal-National Senator Ian McDonald questioned whether "racism was even a thing" in Australia.

According to the Scanlon Foundation, one in five Australians has personally experienced racism. And although Australia does not share the challenge posed by the military-industrial complex, 27% of the prison population are Indigenous. Among young First Australians, the problem is worse. 59% of youth in detention nationally are Indigenous and in the Northern Territory, all of the young people in detention are indigenous. 

Unless Australia organises and co-ordinates a campaign of people power, federal governments, whether they are Coalition or Labor, will continue to be able to ignore the poorest and most vulnerable in our country.

You can follow Patrick Keane on Twitter @pckeane2014.

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