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Poverty 4th Leading Cause of Death in U.S. As Calls Grow for Third Reconstruction: Bishop Barber

Democratic Congressmembers Pramila Jayapal and Barbara Lee have introduced a resolution called the Third Reconstruction, to end poverty in the United States by addressing systemic racism, economic and public health inequity, militarism, other issues.

Bishop Barber at Moral Poverty Action Congress in Washington, D.C.,Democracy Now!

Bishop William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, says it’s “grotesque and immoral” that poverty is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, higher than homicide and respiratory illness, citing recent findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “Why do we hear so much about crime rates and opioids and gun violence in America, but poverty kills more people than all of those things?” asks Barber. He joins us to talk about the intensifying efforts of the Poor People’s Campaign to end poverty and empower poor and low-wage workers and support “The Third Reconstruction” resolution in Congress. This weekend, the Poor People’s Campaign led a Moral Poverty Action Congress in Washington, D.C., focused on ending poverty in the United States.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York, with Juan González in Chicago.

Democratic Congressmembers Pramila Jayapal and Barbara Lee have introduced a resolution called the Third Reconstruction, to end poverty in the United States by addressing systemic racism, economic and public health inequity, militarism and other issues. It was drafted with input from the Poor People’s Campaign, which just led a three-day Poor People’s Campaign Moral Poverty Action Congress in Washington, D.C.

This comes as child poverty is on the rise, after the expanded child tax credit was allowed to expire, and hundreds of thousands are being kicked off Medicaid. A recent medical paper found poverty is the fourth leading cause of death now in the United States.

For more, we’re joined by Bishop Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach, founding director of the Center for a Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School.

Bishop Barber, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about why the Poor People’s Campaign held a mock funeral, starting with the Supreme Court and going to the U.S. Capitol? You’ve talked about poverty being a death sentence and how what was enacted during COVID, that, amazingly, in some cases, saved lives, now has been taken away, and more people are dying.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: We did it, Amy, because of how grotesque and immoral it is that poverty is the fourth leading cause of death. And that’s a conservative figure, because the researchers didn’t even deal with children 15 years and younger. I mean, just say that: poverty, fourth leading cause of death, higher than homicide, higher than respiratory diseases. We have the highest child poverty rate of any country like us in terms of economic power.

And it’s time we have to intensify what we’re doing. And so, at the Moral Poverty Action Congress last week, sponsored by Repairers of the Breach and the Kairos Center, hundreds of poor and low-wealth people, over a thousand, and faith leaders and economists and public health people came together to form a 30-state strategy to intensify, to force our nation’s leaders to confront the American death sentence of poverty, which is totally unnecessary.

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And this is before COVID. Poverty was the fourth leading cause of death before COVID. During COVID, 330,000 people died from the lack of healthcare, not from COVID. Poor people died at a rate three to five times higher during COVID, the high times of COVID, not from COVID but from the lack of access to the things that would have prevented their death.

And the question we have to ask is: Why do hear so much about crime rates and opioids and gun violence in America, but poverty kills more people than all of those things — crime rates, opioids, homicide, gun violence? Why is there no surgeon general’s warning on low-wage jobs as a form of death?

So, we joined with Representatives Lee and Jayapal to introduce the Third Reconstruction resolution, ending poverty and low wealth, saying, “Here are 20 policies. And does the Congress have the resolve — not a Democratic resolve or Republican resolve, but a human resolve, a moral resolve — to eradicate poverty and other systems of injustice, which can be done? This death is unnecessary. It is policy murder. Yeah, it’s policy murder.

And we met also with over 400 congresspersons, with Schumer, Jeffries; tried to meet with McConnell and McCarthy. They wouldn’t meet with us. In fact, they refused to allow us even to meet on the steps of the Capitol.

But we kept going, because living wages could stop death. Healthcare could stop death. Child poverty tax credits could stop death. Redirecting the war economy could stop death. Voting rights could stop death, because it would allow people — if you stop voter suppression, you undermine people getting elected who then will fight against the poor and cause more death.

And so, we are intensifying. In this coming year, 2024, we’re planning 30 major actions, nonviolent, at state capitols. We’re planning on June 15th of next year, a massive Poor People’s, Low-Wage Workers and Moral March on Raleigh — I mean, on Washington, D.C., and to the polls, because we’re going to be mobilizing the 87 million poor and low-wealth people in this country. Poor and low-wealth people now make up over 30% of the electorate, generally, and over 40% of the electorate in battleground states. And in most places, poor and low-wealth people are not voting because they feel like the system has just abandoned them. So we are saying, “Vote and change the system.” And that’s what we have to do; otherwise, we become accessories to the crime of policy murder. And that’s what’s going on right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Reverend Barber, you mentioned low-wage labor as a health threat. And the minimum wage in this country has not been raised — the federal minimum wage — in 14 years. And we hear all this talk about inflation in the country and how Americans are grappling with inflation, but yet millions and millions of Americans are still working in these — as you say, in these low-wage jobs, and Congress refuses to act on the minimum wage. What will it take to effect this simple approach to raising the poverty — or, eliminating the number of people who are in poverty?

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: That’s right. Well, one of the things we talk about is, when we go among poor and low-wealth people, whether in Appalachia or the Delta of Mississippi or Alabama or New York or California, is, “Listen, you have power now.” In most states, if just 20% of poor and low-wage workers would mobilize and vote an agenda for themselves, they could determine who sits in the presidency, in the governorship and in the Senate, and even in the House races, both in the state and the federal. In North Carolina, for instance, it’s only 19% that need to mobilize. In Florida, it’s 4%. Georgia is 7%. Michigan is 1%.

But the other thing is, we’re saying to people, “Listen, during COVID, low-wage workers saved us. We made them go to work. We called them essential workers but treated them like they were expendable. We said, 'Go to work, in the most dangerous jobs, but you don't have a living wage. Go to work, but you won’t have healthcare. Go to work, but you don’t have paid family leave.’” This is social murder, policy murder. It is wrong. And it’s no longer just benign. It’s not just the economics of it. It’s the health of it. As I’ve said, we should have a surgeon general’s warning on low-wage jobs.

We also know that we haven’t raised in 14 years. So, if we just raise the minimum wage to $17 an hour, which is lower than actually what a living wage ought to be, but $17 an hour, some 50 million Americans would come up out of poverty and low wages. Over 40% of African Americans would come up out of poverty and low wage. Millions of white people — and actually, poor white people make up the largest number of poor and low-wage workers in this country. And most poor and low-wage poor people are the working poor. So, it’s backwards. And then, to suggest, as some faulty economists say, that keeping wages low is the way to address inflation is just wrong. The fact of the matter is, inflation has been caused by war and by COVID and by this pandemic, and if people had more money, they could survive through.

So that’s one of the reasons I led a delegation to meet with the president, with faith leaders and impacted people, met at the White House. We were calling for a meeting directly with the president, with economists, faith leaders and impacted people. We were calling on the president to do a major bully pulpit speech saying we cannot, as America, go around this world and challenge other nations, and poverty is the fourth leading cause of death — and that’s a conservative figure — in the wealthiest nation in the world.

We must call ourselves to conscience. And what we’re going to do is make that call have to happen. We’re not backing up. We are intensifying, because, really, it is about people’s lives. And the people that we took into the White House with them, all of them had either experienced death in their families or death in their community from poverty. I want folk to hear that: from poverty. Not from homicide, from poverty. Not from respiratory disease, from poverty. Not from diabetes, but from the effects of poverty. And that is just immoral and wrong, and we have to change it.

AMY GOODMAN: Bishop Barber, as we begin to wrap up, on another topic, I wanted to ask about your decision to retire from church service. You gave your final sermon at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, recently. You spoke about the testimony of the cripple. Explain.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, I talked about that, because the majority of the people in the Bible whom God used had some crippling reality, mentally, physically or otherwise, economically, and yet God used them to be transformative. There’s a great Scripture in the Bible that says the stones that the builders rejected have become the chief cornerstone.

And so, I’ve retired from pastoral ministry, but not from ministry. I’m going to pastor the movement of the Poor People’s Campaign, Repairers of the Breach and this new center at Yale, and try to raise up more and more people who see themselves as important instruments of fundamental change. And we have so much work to do.

You know, I just watched this case out of North Carolina. That case actually is a reaction to the work we did in Moral Monday, when we won. We beat extremists on voter suppression. We beat them on redistricting. We —

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the independent state legislature theory being obliterated by the Supreme Court.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Exactly. And the reason I raise it is because in 1868, it was two ministers who helped lead the writing of the North Carolina Constitution after slavery, that put in the Constitution the very things we now use today to fight extremists at the state level. And it’s important the nation knows the reason they were trying to get that passed and get the Supreme Court to agree with independent legislatures is because we’ve been winning, using the state constitution. And we are winning because of the efforts of people of faith long ago who fought for equality in our Constitution.

That’s work that I want to continue. I’ve been pastoring over 30-some-plus years. Now it’s time for me to train other ministers who are coming up and to engage as an elder and pastor the movement. And I’m humbled by the reality that I have the opportunity to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bishop Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and now founder of the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School, we want to thank you so much for being with us.

Bishop Dr. William Barber is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and founder of the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School

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