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Guest Essay

Poverty Awareness and its Connection to Dr. Martin Luther King's Legacy

  By Kristin Hocker
  Monday, January 30, 2023

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (center) interlocks arms and hands with leaders at the 1963 March on Washington, where he gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at Lincoln Memorial. (Getty Images)

While poverty awareness and the celebration of Dr. King’s legacy may appear to be two disparate commemorations, they have a significant correlation.

Among the many ways Dr. King’s life and work is celebrated, aside from engaging in volunteer work and revealing new statues, is through sharing quotes from either his writing or prolific speeches. The most famously quoted speech is the one he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 1963. Typically, people will cite the end of that speech, where Dr. King famously shares his dream, however it is essential to understand the significance of that speech in its entirety and the broader purpose of the event where it was delivered.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was one of the most significant events in American history, organized by A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and his chief aide, Bayard Ruston.  The purpose was to push Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act, which had been floundering. Additionally, the March organizers and participants were there to demand an end to segregation and advocate for fair wages, economic justice, voting rights, quality education, and civil rights protections.

As the final speaker, Dr. King addressed an audience of more than 250,000 people gathered in the National Mall, and those he knew would be listening from afar. He initiated his speech revisiting the Gettysburg Address, while calling the United States to account to the aspirational values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that were not the reality for all its citizenry.

"It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned," King said in his speech. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt."

Most significant about King’s work and his advocacy was his ability to identify the entangled practices and policies that reinforced state sanctioned segregation, which resulted in maintaining poverty specifically among Black Americans. In his 1967 address to the National Conference on New Politics, he highlighted examples of political interference that diverted or refused funding for social programs that could have significantly changed outcomes for those enduring poverty. He then addressed the tendrils of the “three evils” including, racism, which defies America’s ability to emulate the values of freedom and equity; materialism, which generates a “thing-oriented” society where profits supersede the basic needs of people; and the disease of militarism, in which the prioritization of war overshadows the critical needs of the nation’s underprivileged citizens. In this speech he challenged that eradicating poverty requires more than being charitable, stating, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It is understanding that an edifice which produces beggars, needs restructuring.”

A Global Issue

The efforts of Dr. King and his peers in the 1960’s is part of a vast history of the movement for economic justice in the United States. Activists, scholars, health professionals, and politicians have been championing for equity along class lines for centuries, most significantly during the rise of the Industrial Revolution as the distinctions between social classes became increasingly prevalent.

Yet, sixty years after King and 1960’s era of the Civil Rights movement, championing for economic justice continues on a global scale. According to the World Bank’s Poverty and Inequity Platform, in 2019, 648 million people lived below the poverty line of $2.15 USD/day; the global measurement for extreme poverty. In the United States, poverty is measured by the household incomes of $12,880 for individuals and $26, 500 for a family of four.  According to U.S. Census Bureau, in 2021, the U.S. poverty rate was 11.6%, equating to 37.9 million people who live in poverty. New York State has the 13th highest poverty rate among all states in 2021. As reported in the State Comptroller’s Poverty Trends report, 1 out of 4 people live in poverty in Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester, while 1 in 4 families in Syracuse, and 1 in 5 families in Buffalo and Rochester live in poverty.

Poverty as a Social and Structural Determinant of Health

Poverty does not discriminate, anyone can be affected and, in some cases, individuals are one personal crisis away from crossing the poverty threshold. However, the degree of vulnerability impacts social groups in different ways, especially those who are socially marginalized resulting from structural factors such as: geography, and unequitable economic opportunities-such as, employment, income, retirement, limited education opportunities, and community resource deprivation, etc. When poverty statistics are disaggregated by race and ethnicity, consistent in the U.S. and in New York State, Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous/Alaskan Native citizens experience poverty twice the rates of White citizens. In New York, 1 in 5 residents with disabilities live in poverty. Households where women are single, heads of household experience poverty at twice the rate of all families, and are four times the rate of married couples.

Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge emphasize in their book, Intersectionality, the degree of vulnerability in which social groups are impacted is not homogenous. The socio-economic outcomes of a woman-led, single-family household can vary along the broader social axis of race, ethnicity, national status, and the ways they are affected by the social and structural constraints that contribute to poverty. As King noted, to understand poverty is to understand the edifice, or complex systems that maintains economic inequality and their impacts on human subsistence locally and globally.

Such edifices include systems that contribute to the chasm of wealth inequity in which 1% of the world’s population owns $110 trillion USD of the world’s wealth, and where one’s income is a determining factor of their capacity to keep themselves and their family alive. As feminist scholar Zillah Eisenstein asserts, “Capital is intersectional,” meaning that the generation of capital is conducive to producing social and economic disparities between the bodies that produce labor, in opposition to the bodies that profit from, and benefit from that labor, and are in the position to determine how to compensate that labor.

In addition to wealth inequity is the systemic demise of social welfare in favor of the of the political system of neoliberalism. While policies and the state provision of social welfare function under the premise that providing public goods (schools, hospitals, public transportation, etc.) can ensure the population’s capacity to thrive and participate within a social democracy. Neoliberalism, on the other hand, rejects this notion of public goods in favor of the ideology of individualism including the notion that poverty is the product of individual deficiency (i.e.: the inability to pull up one’s bootstraps). Neoliberalism rationalizes that capitalism is ideal for economic growth, and that wealth will naturally flow down the socio-economic hierarchy, which assumes the innate altruism of those with wealth.

Dr. Paul Farmer, physician, anthropologist, and founder of the international public health organization, Partner’s in Heath, provides a global perspective of this struggle between supporting the public good and operating from neoliberalism. He writes extensively of his experiences in providing healthcare within the world’s poorest communities, including the United States. He states:

"The experience of suffering it’s often noted, is not effectively conveyed by statistics or graphs. In fact, the suffering of the world’s poor intrudes only rarely into the consciousness of the affluent, even when our affluence may be shown to have direct relation to their suffering."

In his book, Pathologies of Power, Farmer uses numerous case studies to explicate how poverty is a form of structural violence, by which social and political forces deprive individuals of their basic needs for survival, thus violating their civil and human rights elaborated in Article 25 of the U. N’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

The framework of structural violence, identifies how political forces, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, etc., generates exclusion, and can cause political upheaval that consistently places vulnerable populations at risk (i.e.: unemployment, wage theft or exploitation, housing instability) and increases human suffering through the effects of extreme poverty, contributing to their susceptibility to illness and disease.

Why Awareness is Important

Whether on a global or local scale, poverty impacts us all. Our awareness of social issues contributes to our ability to advocate for policies, practices, and political decisions that advance the eradication of such issues, including dismantling the systems that sustain that issue.

Poverty takes a long time to overcome. It has longitudinal, even generational effects on individuals and families. It impacts children throughout their lifespan, including their education, the homelives, and their health, which can have devastating effects on their cognitive ability and functionality. Similarly, the impact on adults enduring poverty elevates their stress and exacerbates a cycle of illness that reduces one’s ability to take care of themselves and their families.

In his role as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. King committed resources to the Poor People’s Campaign, which was organized to bring awareness of the plight of the poor and advocate for legislators to improve the economic and social conditions of the impoverished. It was on behalf of the Poor People’s Campaign that King was in Memphis, Tennessee on the fateful evening of April 4, 1968, to support the 1,300 Black sanitation workers who had been on strike since February when two garbage collectors were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck.

The Poor People’s Campaign continues to push our nation’s leaders and lawmakers to enact policies that restore supportive services that could elevate individuals and families out of poverty, like affordable housing and healthcare, welfare programs like TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and SNAP so that families don’t need to choose between paying bills or buying food.

In creating Partners in Health, Dr. Farmer established an organization grounded in the principles of social justice that guide the delivery of high-quality, dignified healthcare to the world’s poorest communities. Operating from the paradigm that health and wellness cannot occur without access to food, shelter, transportation, education and other basic needs, the work of Partner’s in Health is to deliver care that is integrated with providing social support. This work is achieved by employing community health workers, working with local professionals and practitioners who are from the communities served, and establishing training hospitals and universities to educate local talent to staff local clinics. All this is accomplished with a commitment to investment in the necessary resources to facilitate successful outcomes. These practices follow Dr. Farmer’s philosophy that providing services that uphold the social and economic rights of the community is a form of, “pragmatic solidarity, linked to the broader goals of equality and justice for the poor.

In Rochester, coalitions like the Rochester Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI), Common Ground Health, Action for Better Community and The Children’s Agenda coordinate initiatives that address poverty and health inequities throughout Rochester and the outlying Finger Lakes region. RMAPI collaborates with community-wide partners and service providers to innovate ways to make basic needs more affordable and accessible, and advocates for policies that support the needs of those most impacted by poverty. Common Ground Health is a regional-wide organization that focuses on collecting data to address community health issues within a variety of topics such as racism and health disparities, senior health concerns, poverty and other social determinants of health. Action for Better Community is one of the 1,000 nationally recognized Community Action Agencies that were developed by Lyndon B. Johnson, to support low-income families and individuals to be self-sufficient through early-education programs, employment, housing, and transportation assistance. Additionally, organizations like The Children’s Agenda, work to advocate for effective, solution-driven policies focused on the health, education, and overall success of children, especially children vulnerable to poverty, racism, health inequities and trauma.

One major lesson gained through experiencing a global pandemic is how interconnected we all are. We each have a stake in the health and wellbeing of our community’s health and economic wellbeing, and the health and wellbeing of communities around the world.  Awareness is important because it generates empathy. While empathy alone cannot eradicate poverty, as caregivers, educators, learners, community members, and global citizens our awareness can inform our actions and the ways we engage with those we encounter, recognizing that we don’t know one another’s stories, backgrounds, and experiences that one brings with them. As leaders and decision makers, our awareness can inform the decisions we make within our spheres of influence that can impact our work and who benefits from the labor. For individuals who are enduring poverty, encountering the compassion of others can mitigate feeling any sense of stigma or shame for a condition that is beyond their control.

This essay appeared in the School of Nursing Council for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion's January 2023 Newsletter. Kristin Hocker is an assistant professor of clinical nursing, a faculty diversity officer, and the School of Nursing’s deputy Title IX coordinator.

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