Poor People's Campaign

Government failed poor, low-wealth people with COVID-19 death rates higher, many unnecessary in their communities

Vaccination rates don’t explain disparities 

Contact: Martha Waggoner | [email protected]

As the nation closes in on 1 million deaths from COVID-19, the Poor People’s Campaign released a report showing that the pandemic killed people in poor counties at a rate of up to five times more than those who live in wealthier counties. 

At a news conference Monday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network released the unprecedented findings of the Poor People’s Pandemic Digital Report and Intersectional Analysis.

The report was released on the 54th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech titled “Beyond Vietnam” at Riverside Church in 1967, when he drew the connection between poverty, racism and war, and his assassination one year later on April 4, 1968. 

While economists, researchers and other experts reviewed the report, the findings were best illustrated by the poor and low-income people still suffering from the pandemic’s tentacles even as the nation rushes to leave COVID-19 in the collective rear-view mirror. 

Fred Womack’s family lost over 20 family members to COVID-19, which was both an emotional and financial toll because many didn’t have burial insurance, the Jackson, Mississippi, man said. 

“The coronavirus hit our family real hard here in Mississippi,” Womack said. “We went through periods where we lost three or four family members at a time; having four funerals on one day due to the COVID outbreak. A lot of family members have to reach in their pockets just to bury their loved ones. We did that over and over and over again to where it almost became systematic.”

Included are findings from a total sweep of  3,200 counties with data on COVID-19 deaths, income, race and other characteristics. The report also includes snapshots of these counties: Hinds County, Mississippi; San Carlos Reservation, Gila County, Arizona; Bronx County, New York; Mingo County, West Virginia; Marathon County, Wisconsin;  Harris County, Texas; and Wayne County, North Carolina.

“The findings of this report reveal neglect and sometimes intentional decisions to not focus on the poor,” said Bishop William J. Barber II, co-chair of the PPC:NCMR.

The findings also “are so contrary to a nation that claims first and foremost, to establish justice and certainly contrary to the call of God, to care for the least of these,” he said. “And remember, these were unnecessary deaths that did not have to happen, that COVID-19 did not discriminate, but we did. And our discrimination created terrible blind spots that produced the burden of death on so many families that did not have to experience it.”

During the fifth phase (Delta variant), death rates were five times higher in the counties with the lowest median income than in those with the highest median income, the report shows. 

During the deadliest phases, which were the winter surge of 2020 and Omicron, the death rates were 4.5 times an three times higher. 

What we can’t say in this report is who are the people that died,’’ said Alainna Lynch, senior research manager at SDSN. “But what we can say is that the poorest counties grieved twice the number of deaths than the richest counties.”

Overall, people living in poorer counties died at nearly two times the rate of people who lived in richer counties: After grouping counties by median household income into ten groups with equal population size (deciles), the report shows that death rates in the highest median income group are half what the death rates are in the lowest median income.

These deaths are just further proof of why the country needs the Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and March on Washington and to the Polls that the PPC:NCMR will hold on June 18th to call attention to the demands of the 140 million poor and low-wealth people in the US, Bishop Barber said. 

Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, president of SDSN, Columbia University professor and co-chair of the SDSN USA network, called on President Biden and the country’s leadership to review the data to understand how unjust this system has been and to take actions to rectify.”

The data show “a story of profound bravery and difficulty faced by the most vulnerable people in our country who have kept our country running, who suffered the biggest job losses, the most economic dislocation, rental evictions, and disease and death because they were in the front line,” he said. “They could not withdraw. They could not safely stay away. They worked for all of America and we have a debt to pay. We have a moral obligation to face this truth, to recognize it and to rectify the injustices in our society.”

A major part of the government narrative about COVID-19 cases and deaths has been to emphasize how many people are unvaccinated.

But the report notes that “while vaccines have been pushed as the central protective measure against COVID-19, vaccination status does not explain all the variation in death rates across income groups. In almost every group, county vaccine coverage ranges from nearly full coverage (85% or higher) to almost no coverage (under 5%). Average vaccination rates are generally higher in the highest income counties than in middle-and low-income counties, however, these differences do not explain the whole variation in death rates in the later phases of the pandemic.” 

The poorest counties also had twice the uninsured rate of higher income counties, the study showed. 

“We must talk about this,” Bishop Barber said. “We cannot say that [these death rates] are because of individual choices… Something deeper is at work—systems that prey on the poor, poor white people and poor people of color.”

The 300-plus counties with the highest death rates have a poverty rate of 45%, which is 1.5 times higher than in counties with lower death rates, the report notes. 

Shailly Gupta Barnes, policy director for the PPC:NCMR, said the report shows that “poverty was not tangential to the pandemic, but deeply embedded in its geography and its timeline.

Too often, we blame the poor for what are really systemic policy decisions that are outside their hands, decisions that are made for poor communities, but decisions they would never make themselves. Whether that’s around what the minimum wage should be, who has health care or paid leave or childcare, or how much debt we owe or who has enough to eat, who has clean water…these are all policy decisions, choices.” 

“Policy makers decide these questions, not the people whose lives are impacted by those decisions. And now with this data and this analysis, we can see that who died during the pandemic, especially in these worst phases, was also a policy choice.”


COVID-19 has been a “poor people’s pandemic” in a nation that has 87 million uninsured people and 39 million who made less than a living wage before the pandemic hit, said Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the PPC:NCMR. 

Over the past few years, we have heard about how covid is a great equalizer, that pandemics and plagues like this don’t discriminate, but this report shows very clearly that our society does,” she said. 

“We had warnings, we gave warnings that poverty kills. Because before covid even hit, a nation that has more housing and medical technology and GDP than we can ever imagine, allowed 250,000 people a year to die from poverty, from inequality. Our nation has gotten accustomed to death, especially when it’s the deaths of poor and low-income people. “

Dr. Helen Bond, an associate professor at Howard University and a co-chair for SDSN USA said: “Our findings show based upon previous research and the research that we did with over 3,200 counties, that when poverty intersects with race, age, gender ability, and other characteristics, we have what we call an accumulation of risk, a compounding of disadvantage.

“Policy that does not address the lived experience is policy (that’s) full of holes and blind spots. And in order to better to have better policy, we must have better data.”


Jessica Jimenez of the Bronx in New York City: 

Coming from a low income family in the Bronx, it was one of the scariest moments of my life. Not knowing what would have happened. Watching my little sister work very long hours at the hospital. She got COVID three times. It was very scary watching my father lose a lot of his very close friends. It was very heartbreaking to see him very sad and shocked at losing all his friends.”

Bruce Grau of Wausau, Wisconsin:

Wausau, a town of 39,000, is 80% with 50% of its people living in poverty, he said. 

“At times, our county’s rate of hospitalization and COVID deaths in hospitalization led the states. In the first six months of the pandemic, 15 of 18 of COVID positive residents in one nursing home alone died and mostly without their families with them, they died penniless and alone.”

Tyrone Gardner, Goldsboro, North Carolina:

He said he has an autoimmune disease and his wife, who has lupus, contracted COVID: 

“Because I don’t have money, it was 17 days before they even told me I had COVID. So in the process of that, we had a feeding program where I was helping to feed 150 families a day. So 13 days out of those 17 days, I fed children and had COVID and didn’t know it, but thank God, none of them contracted it.”

Vanessa Nosie, San Carlos Apache / Apache Stronghold  in Arizona

The government used her people to experiment on whether the vaccine worked, she said. 

And then when the numbers came out and all the studies that said we can push this forward, then it was hard for us to get the vaccine. And that, that really showed how the federal government thinks about our people, how our lives aren’t valued, that they look at us like it doesn’t hurt that we don’t survive.”


Dr. Sharrelle Barber, director, Ubuntu Center at Drexel Dornsife School of Public Health and head of Health Justice Advisory Committee to the Poor People’s Campaign

“This poverty and pandemic report is painful. An invisible airborne virus has proven to us that we are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality and has shown us with vivid detail, the deadly cost consequences of systemic poverty and systemic racism in our nation. But even more troubling is our inhumane acceptance of mass death and our rush to return to normal at the expense of equity and justice.”

“This report confirms that our actions have been inadequate, especially during the deadliest waves of the pandemic and that as a nation, we value profits over people and individuals over the collective. Many of our public health and healthcare systems and local state and federal decision makers failed to use comprehensive public health mitigation strategies that center equity and justice, have failed to fully address the structural drivers of the pandemic and its economic impacts providing only inadequate short term economic social relief, and have consistently failed to protect and provide for low wage workers.”

John Cavanagh, senior adviser to the Institute of Policy Studies 

“This new data set from the Poor People’s Campaign and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network maps the intersection of poverty, race and COVID, and in the process exposes the policy violence that began long before March 2020 when the pandemic first hit this country. This data screams out the conditions in the poorer counties of this country that led to these obscene rates of deaths and poorer counties versus deaths and richer counties.”

“The lack of equity of healthcare, the lack of equity of undignified jobs, the lack of equity in housing and in education. This data is the wake-up call for this nation to heed the calls of the poor people’s campaign to embrace a far reaching agenda for a Third Reconstruction in the buildup to June 18th.”

Rev. Dr. Alvin O’Neal Jackson, executive director, Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly & Moral March on Washington 

“The gravity of these findings wail, the gravity of these findings scream. They holler. They clearly, boldly and loudly demonstrate why we need June 18th, but more than a day, a declaration, more than a moment, a movement, because as Bishop Barber often says, change has only ever happened when people come together for a meeting and summon the political will to be the change they seek.”