By Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and author of Always With Us?: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. Originally published at TomDispatch.
2020 will go down as the deadliest year in American history, significantly due to the devastation delivered by the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, count in nearly two trillion dollars in damage from climate events (many caused by, or heightened by, intensifying global warming), a surge of incidents of police violence inflicted on Black and Native peoples, and millions more Americans joining the ranks of the poor even as small numbers of billionaires soared ever further into the financial heavens. And it’s already obvious that 2021 is likely to prove another harrowing year.
In the first weeks of January alone, Covid-19 deaths have risen to unprecedented levels; record turnout elected Georgia’s first Black and Jewish Senators in a runoff where race-baiting, red-baiting, and voter suppression were still alive and well; and a racist, white nationalist mob swarmed the Capitol emboldened by the president, as well as senators, representatives, and other officials, in an attempt to subvert and possibly take down our democratic system. The January 6th attack on that building was by no means a singular event (in a country where local officials have in recent years been similarly threatened). It did, however, highlight dramatically the growing menace of illiberal and anti-democratic forces building in power. And one thing is guaranteed: its impact will hit the poor and people of color most strikingly. Social media and news reports suggest that, with an emboldened white supremacist movement on the rise, more such attacks are being planned.
Many have claimed that those rioters (and the president’s infamous “base” more generally) were all, in essence, poor, working-class white people. In reality, however, among those who have led such racist attacks are business leaders, executives, and multimillionaires. As author Sarah Smash writes, “’Poor uneducated whites’ are neither the base/majority nor the explanation for Trumpism: stories now abound of middle-class and even affluent white insurrectionists leading and joining the hateful charge at the U.S. Capitol.”
Indeed, it would be better to take a more careful look at the rich and powerful, as the storming of the Capitol on January 6th once again exposes the Make America Great Again movement for the sort of fake populism that has, in these years, served elites all too “richly.” And the more we learn about that coordinated astroturf assault, the more the dark money that lay behind its origins all these years comes to light.
Questions Must Be Raised
Eleven months into the pandemic, we are living through the most unequal recession in modern American history. For the poor and precarious, this last year was a nightmare that dwarfed the 2007-2008 recession. Between March and October, nearly 67 million people lost work. This month alone about 20 million of them are collecting unemployment. By the end of 2020, one in five adults with children reported that, at times, they didn’t have enough to eat, while one in five renters were behind on their payments and faced the threat of eviction during the winter months of a still rampant virus.
At the same time, the wealth of America’s 651 billionaires increased by more than $1 trillion to a total of about $4 trillion. At the start of 2020, Jeff Bezos was the only American with a net worth of more than $100 billion. By the end of the year, he was joined by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk — and just last week Elon Musk passed Bezos as the richest person in the world.
A look at the wealthiest of wealthy Americans reveals a cross-section of industry — from the leaders of tech companies like Amazon and Facebook to the top executives of financial institutions like Berkshire Hathaway and Quicken Loans to those heading retail giants like Walmart and Nike, all of which collectively employ millions of workers. At Amazon, where the median pay is about $35,000 a year, Bezos could have distributed the $71.4 billion he made in the last pandemic year to his own endangered workers and he would still have had well more than $100 billion left.
A recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness put it this way:
“Never before has America seen such an accumulation of wealth in so few hands. As tens of millions of Americans suffer from the health and economic ravages of this pandemic, a few hundred billionaires add to their massive fortunes. Their profits are so immense that America’s billionaires could pay for a major Covid relief bill and still not lose a dime of their pre-virus riches.”
This last point is especially damning since the first and largest Covid-19 relief bill, the CARES Act, handed out billions of dollars worth of benefits to the upper-middle-class, the rich, and corporations. Most of us will only remember the $1,200 checks that went to some of those in need, but the bill also included provisions that favored the already well-off, including higher corporate interest deductions, flexible corporate loss rules, increased charitable tax deductions, and big tax breaks for the super-rich. Other parts of the CARES Act like the Paycheck Protection Program, as well as significant allocations to universities and hospitals, gave generously to large corporations and the wealthiest of institutions.
Direct payments and other measures in that bill did help many everyday people for a short period of time and yet Senate Republicans stonewalled long after those benefits had expired. When they finally relented in December, Mitch McConnell, knowing full well all that he had secured for the rich in the spring, craftily shot down proposed $2,000 checks for individuals as “socialism for the rich,” even though they would have disproportionately benefited low-and-middle-income Americans. Now, as the Biden transition team lays the groundwork for another major relief bill, conservative Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia has already threatened that he would “absolutely not” vote for such $2,000 checks.
Of course, the acceleration of inequality and tepid policy solutions to poverty are hardly unique to the United States. This year, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index recorded a 31% increase in wealth among the 500 richest people in the world, the largest single-year gain in the list’s history. Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Programme projected that the long-term effects of Covid-19 could force 207 million more people across the globe into extreme poverty. That, in turn, would bring the official U.N. count of those making less than two dollars a day to more than a billion, or a little less than one-seventh of the world’s population — and, mind you, that’s at the onset of a decade that promises escalating economic dislocation, mass migration, and climate crisis.
A World of Superfluous Wealth and Deadening Poverty
This week, President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn into office and inherit a crisis that demands bold action. He has already said that on day one he will commit his administration to confronting the pandemic, the recession, systemic racism, and climate change. Four months ago, during an event with the Poor People’s Campaign, he also told an audience of more than a million people that “together we can carry on Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, which is based on a simple, moral truth: that we’re all created in the image of God and everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.” He concluded by promising that “ending poverty will not just be an aspiration, it will be a theory of change to build a new economy that includes everyone.”
For this to be possible, however, the Biden administration will need to reject the supremacy of austerity and the ideology of scarcity. It will instead have to invest in an economy that guarantees health care, housing, food, water, and decent work for all its citizens. This will, of course, require imagining the sort of restructuring of our society that would, no doubt, be the work of a generation or more. But it could at least begin with an honest accounting of the actual abundance so unequally hoarded in the bank accounts, stock, and real estate holdings of this country’s richest people and the coffers of the Pentagon and the industrial complex that engulfs it, followed naturally by a plan to share it all so much more fairly.
On the anniversary of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (who, had he not been assassinated, would have been 92 years old this January 15th), it is only fitting to share these still timely and prophetic words of his:
“God has left enough (and to spare) in this world for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and God never intended for some of his children to live in inordinate superfluous wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty. And somehow, I believe that God made it all… I believe firmly that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. I don’t think it belongs to Mr. Rockefeller. I don’t think it belongs to Mr. Ford. I think the earth is the Lord’s, and since we didn’t make these things by ourselves, we must share them with each other. And I think this is the only way we are going to solve the basic problems and the restructuring of our society which I think is so desperately needed.”
Exchange Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos for Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Ford, and King’s words couldn’t be more timely, could they?
Honoring Dr. King
After all, every January, students, workers, and community members sign up for service projects to celebrate King’s birthday. In fact, MLK Day is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service, when people paint schools, clean up trash, serve lunch to the hungry, and so much more. Over the last few decades, the spirit of volunteerism has become inextricably linked in the American imagination to King’s life and this year will be no exception. Today, amid unprecedented social, political, economic, and health upheaval, and the need to mask and social distance, even President-elect Biden’s inaugural committee is organizing a day of service.
In October 1983, as Congress considered the creation of MLK Day, Meldrim Thompson, Jr., the former Republican governor of New Hampshire, privately pleaded with President Ronald Reagan to veto any such legislation, calling Dr. King a “man of immoral character” with “well established” communist connections. Reagan (in what today would be true Trumpian fashion) replied, “On the national holiday you mentioned, I have the reservations you have, but here the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality. Indeed, to them, the perception is reality.”
Reagan’s noxious remarks remind us that Dr. King was once considered a profound threat to the established order. The reality of Dr. King’s radical life has over time been almost unrecognizably smoothed over into an image that, so many years later, even Reagan, even Trump, might applaud. By casting Dr. King as an apolitical champion of charity, however, Americans have whitewashed not just his legacy, but that of the Black freedom struggle he helped lead, which broke Jim Crow, thanks to the most militant kinds of organizing.
Through a wicked transmutation of history, those with the most money and power in society are now allowed to use his name as a bulwark against the collective action of poor and dispossessed people, propping themselves up instead. Today, with carefully excerpted texts like “everyone can be great, because everyone can serve” as proof, King’s words are all too often manipulated to sanctify a truly superficial response to the burning crises of systemic racism, poverty, homelessness, hunger, and so much more. Yet even a cursory glance at the historical record should remind us all that King represented an incendiary reality in terms of the America of his time (and, sadly, of ours, too) and that there was nothing corporate-friendly about his image.
Fifty-three years ago, in his sermon “Where Do We Go from Here,” he spoke clearly to the question of corporate service, charity, and the kind of truth-telling action he had committed his life to:
“We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’ These are the words that must be said.”
On the anniversary of his birth, may others keep asking such questions and remind us, as the Biden era begins, that the Earth does not belong to Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, or the white supremacists who laid siege to the U.S. Capitol. The nation must have the moral courage to carry on the work of Reverend King. After all, the best hope of successfully navigating the crises of 2021 and beyond must involve King’s dream of building a multi-racial fusion movement to reconstruct society from the bottom up.
Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis