Steps forward to Abolish Poverty in America
“POVERTY IS AN ACT OF VIOLENCE!,” WEAP’s Executive Director Ethel Long-Scott shouted out in her opening comments at the very first US Courts of Women on Poverty. Over the next four days the outpouring of both stoic and emotional testimony certainly reflected her words. Many participants cried as they listened to others pouring out their intimate stories about the horrors and the violence that poverty brought into their lives.
Some stories, like the testimony of Sacramento’s Tracie Rice-Baily, made the unbelievable believable: “I lived for 12 years in abandoned buildings after being shot in the head,” and didn’t have health care, she told the conference. I had an $180,000 medical bill and no way to pay it, and had to take out my own stitches.
Just hearing stories like Rice-Bailey’s was a life-changing experience some in the audience said. They vowed to do everything they could to end poverty, not just lessen its impact. A panel of jurors listened to each testimony and participated in roundtable discussions on how to end poverty. They tendered their finding that corporations and the U.S. government “. . . be held accountable for the gross local, national and international human rights violations that cause extreme emotional, spiritual and physical harm, even mental illness and death, to the poor people that live within its borders.”
The four days of public testimony and discussion May 10-13 at Oakland’s Laney College was focused on envisioning a future better than the one promised by present-day capitalism, a future without poverty and with all human rights being fulfilled. As the Court’s Resolution of Action put it, “We are committed to uniting the poor as the leadership base for a broad movement to abolish poverty everywhere and forever.”
Workers United International Vice President Richard Monje posed it this way in his keynote address, “We have observed stagnating wages, job loss and dislocation, increased home foreclosures, the disappearance of the safety net….For women it has meant an increase in domestic violence, skyrocketing divorce rates and drug use, increased incarceration of women in jails and prisons. What happened to our dream and our country?”
“The reasonable expectation that we would contribute to society through work, and in the end society would take care of us – This is the way of all civilizations. What happened to this social contract?”
During these four days in mid-May, painful public testimony lifted the violence of poverty out of dark family shadows making it visible to all. People learned that their own painful tragedies that they once believed were their own faults, and that they had to endure alone, were amazingly common, and shared by others too.
Panels of participants and jurors listened to the testimony, examined and discussed the structural reasons for poverty, considered how it is growing, and asked why there is so little outrage at the rich getting so much richer. Why are the wealthiest amassing so much unearned wealth now, while the security of middle class families continues to deteriorate in a country rich enough to give everyone more than the basic necessities of life?
In the end the jurors concluded that the fault is not with individuals who fall into poverty, but with global capitalist economics. The relentless pressure for profits at any cost, in an age when so much of the blue collar and white collar work can be done more cheaply by computer-controlled technology and robots, has employers throwing millions of willing workers onto a growing scrap heap of the underemployed and unemployed.
Or, as Labor Leader Richard Monje put it:
“There has been a major restructuring of our economic and political structures fueled by contracting markets, technological development, new machinery and later computerization, job combinations and outsourcing to low wage countries. This has also driven the need to recoup declining profits (due to the loss of value) and the drive to constantly maximize profits at the expense of workers and communities . . . The ceiling and the floor are squeezing all people toward a large class of impoverished workers (employed or unemployed) . . . “
The possibility that this new class of impoverished workers will unite across color, culture and geographic lines, he said, is driving the 1% to do “everything in their power to prevent the growth, maturity and consolidation of this movement.” This can be seen in the attacks that both major political parties are mounting against immigrant workers, women’s rights, against science and education, against African-Americans through the use of code words. “The forms of repression and new forms of control that are being developed and promoted by both parties are unprecedented.”
The jurors wrote in their concluding statement, “This system of transnational global capitalism with its maximum security state will no longer be allowed to walk all over us.” Four days of personal stories and roundtable discussions made it clear that in an age of jobless recovery, where computerized technology is rapidly replacing human workers, the capitalist economic system is no longer capable of lifting up the 99%, and has turned to tearing them down in order to make sure the rich 1% keep getting richer.
The jurors concluded, “We, the Jurors of the US Courts of Women on Poverty Western Region hold the United States Govt. and corporations responsible and accountable for the multitude of gross human rights violations that have barred the way to basic human rights such as affordable housing, health and mental health care, quality education, right to justice and dignity, and the right to exist and thrive in a free and true democracy.”
The jurors supported all of the recommendations from five roundtable panels that discussed major issues facing people thrown into poverty and those struggling to hang on in the middle class. Roundtable panelists drew up resolutions suggesting ways to end poverty and the violence it causes.
All of the resolutions focused on how corporations are sucking up resources needed for the public good, and how the pursuit of profit strips people of human rights and resources needed for the public good, leaving them struggling to keep from going under.
The resolution on Poverty, Jobs and Immigration called for the nation to change the way it measures wealth, “based on quality of life and measures of human happiness rather than quantity of money and the ownership of private property.”
“Our nation currently has sufficient resources to end poverty,” it said, “but is structured legally to protect the profit-making of corporations and Wall Street, proven by the fact that last year Wall Street and U.S. corporate profits grew at the fastest rate in 60 years, and more than 40 percent of U.S. corporations paid no federal income taxes for two years or more during the period of 1998 to 2005.”
Despite all that wealth, it said, “Half of the US population lives in poverty or is low-income, and more than half of those in poverty are women,” and that “Poverty is the direct result of an economic system that is historically based in the exploitation of human labor, including slave and wage labor. Throughout modern history,” it said, “poverty feeds and promotes inequality and racism; it has been used to keep all working people in competition against one another in the fight for survival; pitting women against men, citizens against ‘non-citizens.’”
Other points it cited included:
• “Immigration law is used by corporations as an instrument of labor policy and has consistently operated against the interests of working people in all nations.”
• “These systems of human labor are increasingly being replaced by electronic technology, destroying the social contract and dismantling the social safety net including child care programs, Cal Works and Programs for Disabled and Seniors, and including a systematic attack on public sector workers at all levels of government.”
• “Unions and all organizations built on the blood, sweat and tears of working people are being defunded, destroyed as part of a global process of implementing austerity measures to facilitate the massive reorganization of government into private corporate hands, thereby putting our people further at risk.”
The resolution called for people to “support and lead ongoing efforts” to:
• “Guarantee our government is held accountable to distribute all social resources to provide everything needed for a complete, healthy and sustainable life for all; this is a human right regardless of job status, citizenship or the ability to pay.”
• “Support and lead campaigns and programs that tax corporations, that expose predatory lending schemes, and that terminate toxic debt swap agreements and promote job development including . . . the Financial Transaction Tax (FTT), (otherwise known as a Robin Hood Tax) proposal undertaken by the National Nurses United.”
• “Guarantee comprehensive human-rights-based immigration reform.”
• “Fight for an economic system where jobs to care give, teach and create good, green jobs to replace our current exploitative labor system.”
• “Any future effort that embodies the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights call for the elimination of poverty.”
The Health Care for the 99% resolution called for health care to be “extracted from market forces and reinvested into the hands of the public trust.” It said, “The Federal government shall develop and provide FREE comprehensive, equal health care for all, regardless of pre-existing conditions, job or marriage status, age, gender or place of origin, with being human as the only precondition to be eligible.”
It noted that “. . . even with all the money spent on healthcare, the US still lags behind other developed countries in indicators of health (the World Health Organization ranks the US 37th in overall health outcomes). It attributed this “. . . to the thousands of insurance companies and pharmaceutical corporations controlling the healthcare system as a system for profit, rather than a system for care.”
After listening to the days of discussion, Community Homeless Alliance Ministry activist Sandy Perry told the conference that we need a cooperative society that puts human rights ahead of corporate rights.
Religious principles say respect human life, he told the audience, but today the system respects property rights, not human life. More and more people are dying, and more people are getting ready to die, he said. It’s tearing us to pieces and ripping out our soul. We need to build new centers of authority, to reject centers of death.
Click here to download the Resolutions of Action brochure