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Mary O'Hara

US citizens are standing up against poverty – the UK should follow suit

By Mary O'Hara

As the Poor People’s Campaign begins six weeks of protest in the US, it’s time for a concerted fight against poverty in two of the richest nations in the world

The recent“McStrikes” in the UK may not have involved a lot of people but they have symbolic importance. As the workers involved have pointed out, a £10 minimum wage demand is hardly asking the earth of a highly profitable global company.

However, on top of the issue of a living wage, the strikers’ sharp focus on zero-hour contracts is crucial. It’s a grim hallmark of the precarious jobs market that is inhabited by a growing chunk of the UK population; 1.8m in 2017.

Time and again we are told that “work pays” and is the best way out of poverty, when this is patently not the case. The emergence of the “gig economy” and a corresponding rise in self-employment breeds insecurity and low pay, leaving many in, or teetering on, the brink of destitution. Nevertheless, a range of actions that exposes poverty wages as an unacceptable new normal, along with the abject unfairness of vast pay gaps between bosses and workers and the injustice of spiralling corporate profits at the expense of fair pay, is to be embraced, such as a trade union-organised march on Saturday demanding a “new deal for working people” in the face of enduring low pay.

In the US, the front lines of the fight against poverty pay and insecure work have been building up a head of steam thanks to ongoing fair wage campaigns such as Fight for $15. Protests, including against McDonald’s, have become a regular occurrence. Most recently the unprecedented teacher walkouts in a number of stateshave captured national attention. Cuts to state education budgets and austerity have systematically stripped teaching professionals of anything resembling a living wage.

On a broader level, attacks on Medicaid, the primary social insurance programme for the poor, have prompted pushback. Meanwhile, among the most impoverished people there is a steady forging of a different kind of protest movement, such as The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (PPC). Spearheaded by secular and church grassroots poverty organisations, poor people themselves, and figureheads such as the Reverend William Barber (whose “Moral Mondays” initiative, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr, made headlines a few years ago when it mobilised record numbers of demonstrators in Raleigh, North Carolina, to protest against regressive state policies), the PPC is taking its message to the national stage.

On Monday, after two years of preparation and grassroots coalition-building, the PPC kickstarts a social justice effort with six weeks of peaceful direct action in state capitals around the US. The intention of the campaign is to construct a broad, citizen-led movement that challenges the shocking and avoidable scale of poverty and the systemic pillars that reinforce it, including racism. Thousands of people, including many who have never been activists, have signed up.

A report, The Souls of Poor Folk, published last month by the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, in conjunction with the PPC, conducted an “audit” of poverty in America in the 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr launched his original PPC. The audit lays bare the enormity of poverty in modern America and meticulously documents individual stories of hardship.

It points out that right now almost 41 million Americans live below the federal poverty line and that upwards of 140 million people (more than 40% of the entire population) are living under the threat of penury.

Taken alongside rising levels of child poverty and austerity in the UK, there can be no doubt that if ever there was a moment for a concerted fight against poverty in two of the richest nations, this is it.

Mary O’Hara is author of Austerity Bites: A Journey to the Sharp End of Cuts in the UK


The Reverend William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, at the National Civil Rights Museum last month, announcing six weeks of non-violent ‘direct action’. Photograph: Mark Humphrey/AP

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