RIO RANCHO, N.M. (AP) – Clergy and religious leaders are preparing for a virtual march on Saturday to highlight the plight of Americans struggling with poverty – people like Madelyn “Maddie” Brace and her friend, Luciano Benavidez.
For weeks, Brace and her 4-month-old daughter extended Benavidez’s shrinking wages as his hours dropped to 22 a week. In their small apartment in Albuquerque, they’ve eaten smaller dinners and struggled with red tape at the state unemployment agency.
The global pandemic is holding back 21-year-old Brace. The lack of money forces 20-year-old Benavidez to look for work that is not there.
“COVID-19 hits, and our country is quite negligent,” said Reverend William Barber II, an organizer of Saturday’s march and president of the Repairers of the Breach, a nonprofit that fights poverty and discrimination. “Global pandemics naturally exploit the gaps in society and America has gaps in terms of poverty and systemic racism.”
Modeled after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s latest organizational effort, seeks the new campaign to bring the issue of poverty to the American consciousness amid fear, uncertainty and growing inequality.
The Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington aims to build on the nation’s principles of pursuing solutions to poverty – something lawyers say is becoming particularly serious in the countryside.
But instead of gathering in camps near the National Mall – as protesters did after King’s death in 1968, as part of the Poor People’s Campaign – this week’s gathering gives poor people the opportunity to describe their lives, live streamed to a national audience.
The digital meeting plan grew out of a sketch for a march for the White House this summer. That idea was dropped because of the pandemic.
Organizers say poor Kentucky miners and members of the Apache tribe of Arizona will speak about their own experiences of extreme poverty. Residents of Appalachia will discuss their food deserts, while others from the Mississippi Delta will discuss the lack of jobs.
The meeting comes two years after Barber and Reverend Liz Theoharis of New York City encouraged activists in 40 states to participate in civil disobedience, teach-ins and demonstrations to force communities to tackle poverty on the anniversary of King’s event.
Barber said the coalition operates in 45 states. The organizers have visited colonies along the US-Mexico border and met poor white farmers in Kansas.
Those pursuing the campaign include Mariah Kolka (24) and Casey Britton (25) from Linden, Tennessee. Both are mothers who live in a remote province with limited resources and who have worked with limited income in recent years. They live in an area with few supermarkets and healthy food.
“We’re running fast here,” Britton said. “There is not much left than fast food.”
Child malnutrition, graduations and early deaths are worst among rural black majority counties in the American South and isolated provinces where Native Americans live, according to a report released this month by advocacy group Save the Children.
Using 2018 federal data and examining more 2,600 counties and their equivalents, the report found that about a third of the 50 poorly ranked counties are the majority African American and a quarter the majority are Native American.
Barber said such statistics should inspire the county to take action. He said the organizers want both President Donald Trump and suspected Democratic candidate Joe Biden to hold at least one debate focused on poverty.
“We’re going to be a face,” said Barber. “Then we commit to a massive effort to build up the ability to vote.”
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP’s race and ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras
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