RIO RANCHO, N.M. – Clergy and religious leaders are preparing to hold a virtual march Saturday to highlight the plight of Americans struggling with poverty — people like Madelyn “Maddie” Brace and her boyfriend, Luciano Benavidez.
For weeks, Brace and her 4-month-old daughter have stretched Benavidez's shrinking paychecks, as his hours declined to 22 a week. In their small Albuquerque apartment, they've eaten smaller dinners and wrestled the bureaucracy at the state’s unemployment office.
The global pandemic keeps the 21-year-old Brace inside. The lack of money forces 20-year-old Benavidez out, searching for employment that’s not there.
“COVID-19 hits, and our country is quite negligent,” said the Rev. William Barber II, an organizer of Saturday's march and president of the Repairers of the Breach, a nonprofit group that fights poverty and discrimination. “Global pandemics, by their very nature, exploit the fissures of society and America has fissures in terms of poverty and systemic racism.”
Modeled after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last organizing effort, the new campaign seeks to bring the issue of poverty to the American consciousness amid anxiety, uncertainty and growing inequality.
The Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington aims to build upon the nation’s principles to pursue solutions to poverty — something advocates say is getting especially severe in rural areas.
But instead of assembling in camps near the National Mall — as protesters did in the wake of King's death in 1968, as part of the Poor People's Campaign — this week's gathering will offer poor people a chance to describe their lives, live-streamed to a national audience.
The digital gathering grew out of an original plan for a march in front of the White House this summer. That idea was scrapped due to the pandemic.
Organizers say poor coal miners from Kentucky and San Carlos Apache members from Arizona will speak about their own experiences in extreme poverty. Residents from Appalachia will discuss their food deserts, while others from the Mississippi Delta will talk about the lack of jobs.
The gathering comes two years after Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis of New York City encouraged activists in 40 states to take part in acts of civil disobedience, teach-ins, and demonstrations to force communities to address poverty on the anniversary of King’s event.
Barber said the coalition is operating in 45 states. Organizers have visited colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border and met with poor white farmers in Kansas.
Among those the campaign is pursuing to help are Mariah Kolka, 24, and Casey Britton, 25, of Linden, Tennessee. Both are mothers who live in an isolated county with limited resources and who have toiled in recent years with limited income. They live in an area with few grocery stores and health food options.
“We run out of vegetables run quick here,” Britton said. “There's not much left but fast food.”
Childhood malnutrition, graduation rates and early deaths are worst among rural, black-majority counties in the American South and isolated counties where Native Americans live, according to a report released this month by the advocacy group Save the Children.
Using federal data from 2018 and examining more 2,600 counties and their equivalents, the report found that about a third of the 50 poorly ranked counties are majority African American and a quarter are majority Native American.
Barber said statistics like those should inspire the county to take action. He said organizers want both President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden to hold at least one debate that focuses on poverty.
“We are going to be a face on it,” Barber said. “Then, we are committed to a mass effort to build voting power.”
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