March 9, 2021
In a country where 74 million women live in poverty or are low-income, we can observe but not celebrate International Women’s Day, speakers said at the Poor People’s Campaign Moral Monday.
“Today is not a day to celebrate for me because death that can be prevented is not to be celebrated,” said Rev. Letiah Fraser, a disability activist and a member of the coordinating committee of the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign. “I will not celebrate being sick and tired of being sick and tired. Today is a day that I call upon my elected officials to pass a just and fair COVID-19 relief bill that includes raising the minimum wage for all to $15 an hour.”
Rev. Fraser spoke during the Moral Monday program, which focused on women who are poor and low-income as women are the backbone of social justice movements. The prayer of Prathia Hall provided the cornerstone of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, and the women of the National Welfare Rights Organization were instrumental in forming the original Poor People’s Campaign.
Women “are the voices that have saved this country. These are the forces that have been on the front line. We are so tired of people trying to make poor and low-wealth people accept little pieces and compromises here and there and never deal with the issue. So don’t ask us to overly celebrate a piece of victory when what we want is everybody in and nobody out,” said Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival as he referred to the COVID-19 relief bill that doesn’t include a minimum wage of $15 an hour.
The only way to honor women in the U.S. and across the world “is by raising wages, is by guaranteeing income, is by raising from the bottom so that everybody can rise,” said Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “So that’s what we’re here to do, to keep on putting pressure that we gotta end all poverty, we gotta raise all wages for all workers. Everybody has to be in. Nobody can be out. And what we know is that who has led great transformational moments and movements in history (are) the kind of women and the women who are leading us today.”
Kris Kincaid, a janitorial worker in Beckley, West Virginia, who worked in a restaurant before the pandemic and a member of Appalachian People’s Front:
“I cleaned banks. Besides banks we cleaned doctors offices, dentists offices, things like that. Our senator here (Sen. Joe Manchin) says that West Virginians would be just fine with $11 an hour, but let me make it very clear that we’re not OK with 11. Eleven doesn’t begin to touch the need that we have.”
Kincaid and her husband are fundraising to buy menstrual supplies for low-wage women and sometimes must miss work because they can’t afford them. The Appalachian People’s Front also serves meals several times a week to 200 to 300 people.
“These are low-wage workers that come to us. There are, you know, workers who make just barely enough to survive. And I think that really speaks to the situation throughout Appalachia, and really not even Appalachia but the U.S. Just low-wage workers, we can’t make ends meet. If we can pay rent, then we can’t afford groceries.”
Julia Kennedy, third-year student at Hampton University who is a visiting student at Gallaudet University. She is deaf with cerebral palsy. She spoke with sign language and an interpreter.
“It’s important to know that employers are legally allowed to pay people with disabilities less than the current minimum wage. The Raise the Wage Act would eliminate this injustice and raise the pay for poor people with disabilities. For me, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour would help me to afford basic necessities, medical bills and therapy. I would also be able to afford accessible housing for me to live independently with my family.”
Becca Forsyth, a tri-chair of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign. Her husband became disabled 10 years ago when a mosquito bite caused viral encephalitis:
“We live in a state that is considered ‘progressive’ … where Democrats carry a super majority, and yet we are still having to beg for the crumbs that fall from the table. Today, on International Women’s Day, we demand an end to the attention violence that has for far too long forced the women and children of my community to suffer the burden of inequality! We need living wages…$15 minimum wage isn’t enough…but we still have to beg for that! We need universal healthcare…why do we have to beg for that during a pandemic? We need real and just COVID relief. We need safe, quality, and equitable housing. We need a functional public education system that prepares our kids for more than being slaves to an unfair economic system. We need those who represent us to prioritize right over wrong and people over profits! We need them to take their knees off our necks and let us breathe!
Linda Burns of Birmingham, Alabama, and an Amazon worker. She earns $15/hour but also has only two bathroom breaks in a 10-hour shift. She suffered through COVID-19 and has tendonitis, which prevents her from working.
“I’m still catching up. Even though I got another job, I’m still catching up because I was like three, four months behind in rent, three, four months behind in car note, three, four months behind on my lights and stuff. Thank God they weren’t cutting power bills off and stuff because I would have been sleeping in my car. So it’s just been a big struggle.”
Maureen Taylor, chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, a union of public assistance recipients, low-income workers and the unemployed that organizes members to fight for their rights and to eliminate poverty in this country.
“Poverty demands courage as poor people must make strategic plans to cross over to a better life. These treacherous waters are full of floating, political debris. The lack of affordable housing, the lack of accessible care, the lack of affordable education, no transportation, skyrocketing auto insurance, these are just some of the barriers that disenfranchised low-income women have to navigate daily trying to get their family safely to the other side. The cost of living is going up. The chances of living are going down.”
Marlene Patrick Cooper, president of UNITE Here Local 23:
“During the presidential election, we had over 1,700 laid off hospitality workers on poor voters in the U.S. We knocked on over 1.5 million doors for our future because our lives depended on it. Our folks sacrificed time away from home during this time with their families canvassing, knocking on doors to get out the vote because their lives depended on it again. Now it’s time for us to continue to hold this administration accountable and to push them to pass transformative legislation for working people.”
Rhiana Ford from UNITE Here Local 355, a tipped service worker at the Fort Lauderdale airport. She and her husband earn $5 an hour, and she cares for her 90-year-old father:
“When I went to Georgia (for canvassing), I broke my ankle. I left my home. I left my Dad. I left my sister. I left my fiancé, I left everyone here and risked my life to go to Georgia in the pandemic to make sure I could have a better future, better everything, we could all have a better everything. And I’m coming back home and we still don’t have 15? Why? Does no one think that we don’t deserve it? That the job that I do is so nothing? The girls I used to work with Aisha, Kim, Magdalena, Tiffany, they all have kids. I would give up my $5 an hour shift to them. I would take food out of my mouth to help feed them and their kids. I’m putting myself where the government should be. I broke my ankle in Atlanta and I’ll do it again for the $15 an hour. I refuse. I refuse. I refuse to take pennies while people live in mansions.
Sophia Helen Mees de Tricht of Iowa, a 10-year military veteran and a transgender woman:
“I’ve had hiring managers, plural, tell me they just don’t want to hire a trans person. Housing insecurity, food insecurity, poor food quality, the looming specter of subsistence sex work and the rumination that follows to keep a roof over their head like so many trans women have done before me. … People of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, indigenous people, mothers, other poor and low-wealth people are also routinely discriminated against which perpetuates the cycle of poverty, an injustice that interlocks with racism, classism, sexism, and ableism despite the laws ostensibly preventing it. … This cannot be how we treat people. We demand $15 an hour now, not in three years, now.”
SEIU President Mary Kay Henry:
“I join you in saying it’s not a time for celebration, but I wonder if you agree with me that it is a time to honor the shoulders that we stand on of women who have dared to not be silent anymore and to use the fullness of our power on behalf of the 74 million poor and low-wealth women that all of us in this Moral Monday gathering are committed to making sure are not going to be consigned to poor and low-wealth forever. We’re going to use our power to recognize the richness and brilliance of each and every one of those women, the perseverance in the struggle for justice, that’s going to mean that we will win a $15 minimum wage and we will win every fight for justice that’s part of this incredible fusion movement.
Elaine Gore of North Carolina, a caregiver who lost her housing and her car during the pandemic:
“Earning a wage of at least $15 an hour would be life-changing for me and my family. As a woman who had to work two jobs all my life to take care of my family, $15 would have meant I would have more time to spend with my daughter. It also means I would have been better able to take care of myself. That goes for all the women with or without families that make the backbone of the home care industry.”
Nell Myhand, 64-year-old lesbian in California who has been a low-wage worker and an unpaid caregiver whose income is less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level:
“I live in constant fear of losing my housing. My only source of income is Social Security disability. Our family home was foreclosed on by Chase Bank. After my Mom died, they chose to foreclose rather than to modify the loan. I then spent two years in housing instability which was stressful for both my physical and mental health. I had to move 12 times in that two-year period. So I’m here fighting back with the Poor People’s Campaign, which has called for the right to welfare, for care income and for a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour. These demands are interrelated. Women like me are exhausted. We are unpaid caregivers for children, elders, family members with disabilities and we are low-wage workers. “
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, senior pastor of Middle Collegiate Church, New York City:
“I’m tired as you are tired. Working hard as you are working hard. I’m struggling as you are struggling to make sure that everybody has the right to live freely with liberty and justice for real that they can put food on the table for their children that they can work and feel dignity and be able to rest at night that our children can live in this nation and not be afraid to walk around and be black and brown, that we end poverty as a preexisting condition. I’m tired as I know you’re tired. And I’m rejuvenated by this feminine divine energy that I see.”
Sunita Viswanath, co-founder and active board member of the 14-year old front-line women’s human rights organization, Women for Afghan Women and co-founder and board member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus.
“It’s morally reprehensible that in the U.S. in 2021 while corporate executives and presidents of private universities make many millions of dollars each year, we are fighting for $15 an hour. I am so disgusted that even after we elected the Democrats back to power — this is a side that’s supposed to care for the poor and about equity — we’re still fighting this fight like this. We should be fighting for free health care for all, free public higher education for all-paid family leave, but here we are fighting for a minimum wage that isn’t even liveable. I am no economist, but I know that no one with dependents, hell, no one without dependents can survive $15 an hour. … The Biden administration must override the parliamentarian, and they would if this were a priority for them and we must pass the $15 minimum wage for all workers now.
Sara Steffens, secretary-treasurer of Communications Workers of America:
“It seems especially appropriate for me to be here with all of you here on International Women’s Day. As many of you have said, not necessarily a celebration, but definitely a moment that we need to observe. All of our members at CWA, all of our leadership, we are continuing our call for a fair and just $15 minimum wage. We’re calling on the Senate to quickly approve the American rescue package so that working people will get critical relief.”
BACKGROUND: Nationally, more than 140 million poor and low-income people live in the United States, or 43% of the country’s population, and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, with organizing committees in 45 states, is building a moral fusion movement to address the five interlocking injustices of systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism and a distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism. Our demands are reflected in our Jubilee Platform with our priorities for the new Congress and new administration reflected in our 14 Policy Priorities to Heal the Nation: A Moral and Economic Agenda for the first 100 days.