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Rev. Drs. Liz Theoharis and William Barber

Rev. Drs. Liz Theoharis and William Barber appeared on stage at the Poor People's Moral Action Congress forum for presidential candidates at Trinity Washington University on June 17, 2019. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

'The Poor, the Sick, the Homeless, the Children, the Low-Wage Workers': Moral Leaders Demand Coronavirus Relief for Most Vulnerable

"We are asking people to call on the White House and Congress to enact relief for the people that Jesus cared about," say the Poor People's Campaign co-chairs.

Jessica Corbett

In an op-ed published Thursday by TIME, Poor People's Campaign co-chairs Rev. Drs. William Barber and Liz Theoharis outlined the "evil" elements of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus legislation that President Donald Trump signed last week and demanded a federal COVID-19 relief effort that centers the needs of the nation's most vulnerable.

"We must invest in education, living-wage jobs, anti-poverty programs, public infrastructure, and a single-payer healthcare program that does away with our privatized, for-profit healthcare system and instead guarantees everybody in, nobody out."
—Rev. Drs. William Barber and Liz Theoharis, Poor People's Campaign

Although the third coronavirus relief package provides some cash payments to workers, increased unemployment benefits, and support to small businesses, Barber and Theoharis noted "it also includes a $500 billion fund to bail out corporations, and Trump has already vowed to defy the oversight that Democrats in the Senate and House worked to require."

"Americans who are desperate for aid from their government could not get it without paying a 25% surcharge to the rich and powerful," they added. "In a word, this is evil."

Barber and Theoharis explained that "as Trump and his enablers continue to fumble their response to COVID-19 and sow deep inequities into the social response to this pandemic, the Poor People's Campaign is calling for noncooperation with injustice and inequality," and urging Congress to pursue "permanent changes" to improve the lives of people most affected by the pandemic.

The co-chairs detailed various shortcomings of the most recent relief package as well as what they want introduced going forward:

[The] $2 trillion bill that Congress passed treated corporations like people and people like things—with no provisions for a permanent living wage, paid sick leave for all, or health insurance for the uninsured. It leaves out the majority of homeless, undocumented immigrants, the disabled, and anyone too poor to have to file taxes. It only places a four-month moratorium on eviction filings. It does not include rent freezes nor large-scale debt forgiveness.

We need a relief bill that centers the needs of the homeless, the uninsured, the underemployed and the low-wage workers now deemed "essential," although their wages do not show this. We must invest in education, living-wage jobs, anti-poverty programs, public infrastructure, and a single-payer healthcare program that does away with our privatized, for-profit healthcare system and instead guarantees everybody in, nobody out. We have put forward these demands in our petition "Poverty Amidst Pandemic: A Moral Response to COVID-19."

The Poor People's Campaign, a revival of an effort launched over 50 years ago by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is a national movement that confronts "the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism."

In addition to serving as the campaign's leaders, Barber and Theoharis are preachers and theologians. As such, they expressed alarm that Trump recently discussed reopening the U.S. economy by and packing church pews for Easter, which falls on April 12, despite public health officials' social distancing guidelines and persistent calls for a nationwide shutdown to contain the coronavirus.

"Between now and Easter, we are asking people to call on the White House and Congress to enact relief for the people that Jesus cared about—the poor, the sick, the homeless, the children, the low-wage workers," Barber and Theoharis wrote. "Over the next few months, we are calling for mass noncooperation with the Trump administration's 'return to normalcy' approach to this crisis."

Following an emerging trend of shifting from public demonstrations to online activism in the age of coronavirus, the campaign is organizing a digital Mass Poor People's Assembly and Moral March on Washington for June 20, which the co-chairs said will be the "largest online gathering of poor and low-wealth people and all people of conscience in U.S. history."

Hours after the op-ed was published, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide surpassed a million—more than a quarter of which are in the United States. Globally, over 51,000 have died, with at least 5,648 reported deaths in the U.S.


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