Poor People's Campaign

Contact: Martha Waggoner | [email protected]

A Pennsylvania city recognized as having one of the nation’s worst cases of environmental racism “has been a toxic dumping ground because it is a poor, forgotten, predominantly Black city,” an environmental justice leader said Monday during a Poor People’s Campaign march and rally in Philadelphia. 

“That’s why I will not stop fighting. I will not stop fighting for the health of my community because I deserve to breathe clean air, you deserve to breathe clean air, we all deserve to breathe clean air,” Kearni Warren, a Philadelphia area organizer who is part of the Energy Justice Network, said in prepared remarks. “It is our right to breathe clean air so I’m asking you to join me and the Poor People’s Campaign Mass Assembly March on Washington on June 18th.” 

Ms. Warren spoke during the Mobilization Tour stop in Philadelphia, led by the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign, which is one of about a dozen stops on the way to theMass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls

She spoke at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia where a rally was held after a march that began at City Hall. Chester, located southwest of Philadelphia, is home to the nation’s largest trash incinerator, a sewage sludge incinerator, a paper mill, toxic waste sites and many other pollution-causing plants. The city, among the poorest communities in the state, has a population of 34,000 that is nearly 70% Black. 

The program can be viewed here.

 Activists with the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign and their allies march in Philadelphia on April 25, 2022 

 (Photo by Steve Pavey/Poor People’s Campaign/Repairers of the Breach/Kairos Center) 

The state campaign invited the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival to join the action, led by the co-chairs: Bishop William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. 

“It is our moral duty to see the suffering of other human beings, especially those closest to us. And when we witness unnecessary suffering, it is our duty to act,”  Bishop Barber, who joined the meeting remotely, said in prepared remarks. 

“If Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine demand action, then so too does the failure of the U.S. Senate to pass Build Back Better’s provisions for affordable housing, green jobs, living wages for care workers, and a child tax credit that will immediately lift 4 million children out of poverty. If Putin’s attack on democracy in Europe can unite Western democracies, then the assault on voting rights in state houses across America must, at the very least, unite Senate Democrats in their resolve to pass federal voting rights protections before the midterms this fall,” Bishop Barber said. “The moral imperative of these issues is no less pressing than the human suffering in Ukraine. The only difference is that we have believed the propaganda that tells us the suffering of America’s poor is either their fault or the inevitable cost of economic growth.”

Poverty is not a personal choice but a policy choice and even before COVID, these policies were killing and hurting people, with 250,000 dying from poverty each year in the US. 

Dr. Sharrelle Barber with the Poor People’s Campaign COVID-19 health justice advisory committee testified on behalf of her and her public health colleagues around the nation “who are both grieved and outraged at the tragic avoidable and unjust loss of life that we have witnessed over the past two years.” 

“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, deadly consequences of systemic poverty and systemic racism in our nation,” said Dr. Barber, inaugural director of the Ubuntu Center on Racism, Global Movements & Population Health Equity at the rexel University Dornsife School of Public Health.  “Here in the city of Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the nation, we have felt the toll of COVID 19 viscerally as it has exacerbated the entrenched inequalities that existed prior to the pandemic, just ask the families and communities who have lost too many loved ones.”

Monday’s action called attention to the needs of the 4.7 million poor and low-income people in PA and the 140 million people nationally who were poor or low-income before COVID

These are “times of staggering danger, but also enormous possibility, moments that should be met with unbridled imagination, absolute seriousness, and the music of those jubilee horns,” Rev. Dr. Theoharis said in prepared remarks. “Above all, in a world distinctly stacked against us, we must believe that we can succeed.”

“And so we the poor, the low-wage, the underinsured, clergy, young, old, queer, straight – we are gathered this evening to demonstrate the power of poor and impacted people banding together and demanding that this country change for the better, to call for a radical redistribution of political and economic power, a revolution of moral values, to build the power to enact all our demands,” she said. 

The action came several weeks after the PPC:NCMR released the Poor People’s Pandemic Report, which showed deadly disparities between COVID deaths in wealthier counties vs. poorer ones. For Philadelphia, it showed that over 5,000 people have died of COVID in the city, which is the poorest big city in the nation with almost ½ of the population (44.76%) living at below 200% of the federal poverty line. 

The priorities and demands of poor and low-wealth Pennsylvanians were at the forefront as they countered the lie of scarcity and put forward a Third Reconstruction agenda that demands, among other things: updating the poverty measure to reflect the real cost of living; enact a living wage and guarantee the right of all workers to form and join unions and guarantee quality health care for all. 

Jessica Boyles, a home healthcare aide from northeast Pennsylvania, said she suddenly became “essential and a hero” when the pandemic hit in 2020. Yes, she was a health care worker with no health insurance. 

“And at $11 an hour, I made too much for Medicaid but not enough to buy insurance,” she said in prepared remarks. “I looked for a new job offering insurance benefits and the best I could find was an agency requiring a full year of employment before benefits kicked in. I took that job and I worked that year only to find that my benefits were so low and the deductible so high, I couldn’t actually afford to use it.”

Marcela Ramirez from the Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania, said the country needs a pathway to citizenship for 11 million or more people. 

“We need permanent protection for every family, this change will make us safer.  But the only change we have seen under this administration are two new detention centers here in Pennsylvania,” she said, including one that’s the largest detention center in the Northeast. “For poor and working people there is always money detention and deportation, but there is never money for our legalization, for our health care, for living wages. That is immoral!”

Poverty is not a personal choice but a policy choice and even before COVID, these policies were killing and hurting people, with 250,000 dying from poverty each year in the US. 

Poor people do have power. Of the 168 million voters who cast a ballot in the general election for president in 2020, 58 million — or 35% of the voting electorate – were poor or low-income. In Pennsylvania, poor and low-income people made up 34% of all votes cast in that election. 

Rev. Dr. Alvin O’Neal Jackson, executive director of the assembly and march  in DC, urged everyone to join that June 18th program. 

“I’ve just come with a question. Are you ready? Are you ready for change? Are you ready for social transformation?” he asked. “This meeting will be a major massive transformative generational disruptive gathering, not just for a day, but a declaration of an ongoing, committed moral movement to shift the political narrative, build power and call this nation to fully address poverty and low-wealth from the bottom up.

“This will be the largest gathering in history of poor and low-wealth people and their moral allies coming together for a meeting … saying to the world and to the nation, we’re coming in the name of love. We’re coming in the name of justice and truth as a moral assembly and march to make the nation see us, hear us and feel us.”


Carolyn Hill,  grandmother from North Philadelphia caring for three of her grandchildren.

“I was also the kinship caregiver for my two nieces who were taken from me because the child welfare department decided I was too poor to raise them. But I had a roof over my head and food in the fridge and the girls were doing well in my care. I fought back by protesting, writing letters and getting support, but they gave the girls to a more distant family member who has more money. I haven’t seen them since 2013.”

The groups I work with are fighting for money for mothers and grandmothers for the work of caregiving. The Child Tax Credit was a godsend for me and my family.  It helped me pay the bills, keep cable on for the grandchildren, buy them clothes and take them to the amusement park.  If I had had CTC earlier, child welfare might not have taken my nieces from me.

Sefi Shiller, whose father moved back to Philippines because his military pension wasn’t enough to live on in the US

“My father immigrated from the Phillipines and joined the Navy. Growing up on military bases, I was fed the lie that America was the savior of the world and that serving your country was an honor and you would be celebrated. If this were true we wouldn’t have 29% of the junior enlisted being food insecure and veterans on the street. Instead of supporting families, they are pumping money into bombs and [foreign] occupations.

“The military budget also takes resources from the general public as in public education and anti-poverty measures while degrading our environment. PFAS, known as forever chemicals, are widely used by the military. They have not only contaminated bases but also drinking water in areas as close as Montco, where I live.”