Turning Shame to Blame: Advancing the fortunes of the poor starts with a change in perspective.

AuthorSherwin, Wilson

The last time the United States grappled with the cruelty of "poverty in the midst of plenty"-a term coined by President John F. Kennedy in a letter to Vice President Lyndon Johnson--was more than fifty years ago. The similarities between that era and today are notable.


Then, as now, the government has seemingly limitless funds for wars abroad while implementing austerity for domestic needs. Working people face the threat of widespread job losses due to automation and the economic impact of the coronavirus. They are on the front lines of fighting the COVID-19 outbreak, doing essential jobs in a dangerous time.

The pandemic has added urgency to calls for solving poverty with a guaranteed or universal basic income. And these issues are being brought to the national consciousness largely by grassroots collectives of poor people demanding respect and economic security.

The Poor Peoples Campaign, which frames its political project as "A National Call for Moral Revival," is a unique and much-welcomed presence on the U.S. political scene, in part because for the past fifty years poverty was rarely seen as an issue of any political import.

Those who haven't managed to climb the illusive ladder of success--the 59 percent of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, the 14.3 million households who were food insecure at some point in 2018, or the 40 percent of Americans who would not be able to cover an unforeseen financial crisis of $400 or more--often come to believe these situations are their own doing. If only they had made better decisions, worked harder, held off on having kids a little longer, and so on, they wouldn't be in this position.

Overcoming shame and isolation, and replacing self-blame with feelings of outrage and belief in an alternative future, have been crucial to successful mobilizations of poor people throughout history. Turning the sense of individual misfortune and shame into collective fury and mobilization helped make possible the groundbreaking (if insufficient) social and economic protections of the New Deal.

A similar shift in blame--from the individual to structural causes--helped embolden the mobilizations of poor people in the late 1960s, the last time politicians spoke seriously about eradicating poverty in the United States.

The Poor People's Campaign--which shares its name with the major campaign launched by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.--emerged on the...

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