LEWISTON — In today’s world, the loss of a job, a hurricane or storm that destroys a home can quickly turn a middle-class citizen to someone in poverty.
Despite how quickly that can happen, those in need are getting a bad rap nationally from some politicians, people, even some churches, said Anthea Butler, a national American and African American religion historian who delivered the keynote speech Monday at Bates College’s Martin Luther Day events.
Butler is an author, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, media commentator and regular guest on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry Show.
“The rhetoric now about being poor is if you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you don’t deserve to get help, that welfare queens still abound,” Butler said. The rhetoric says if a person isn’t able to make enough money, “you must not be working hard enough, you’re probably just lazy,” she said.
While Martin Luther King Jr. was known for his civil rights work, he also called attention to the poor. Before his 1968 assassination, King organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” and publicly criticized capitalism for how it keeps some in poverty, Butler said.
A month after King was assassinated, 3,000 poor people came to Washington, D.C. and camped out on the mall, creating “Resurrection City,” a shantytown not unlike Occupy Wall Street of 2011, Butler said.
If King were alive today he’d be appalled at the country’s poverty, and even more at the rhetoric, she said.
The 2011 Census showed that 15 percent of Americans live in poverty. So far in this new century, the country has suffered two wars, a housing and banking crisis where “bankers and insurance companies like AIG were bailed out while people’s neighbors were foreclosed on their homes and got kicked out,” Butler said.
Before the housing crisis there were 37 million Americans at or below the poverty line, that number has jumped to 47 million.
There’s chronic unemployment, reduced gains in every community except the top 1 percent, elderly who can’t afford to retire, “and our nation is gripped by an overarching sense of shame and denial about poverty,” Butler said.
The Bates College community is lucky, Butler said. “We sit in nice, hallowed places.” But for many, “poverty is just a click away.”
She told of “invisible people” who have fallen off the unemployment rolls, like a Detroit woman who was laid off from a $40,000-a-year job. She went from being a middle-class citizen to someone below the poverty line.
Meanwhile, televised leaders like popular Joel Osteen have “switched Christianity from ‘we’re going to serve others,’ to ‘me, my and I don’t care about you’,” Butler said. The “prosperity gospel” tells followers they don’t have to care about the poor, “because clearly if you don’t have enough money, you’re not serving God,” Butler said.
“Helping people has become a bad word,” she said. “I call this the nation’s new ‘Ayn Rand philosophy.”
Some politicians “will tell you the government is not here to help everyone,” Butler said. But who will help in disasters like Hurricane Sandy. “I don’t see AIG or Wall Street businesses coughing up money.”
Wrong policies will create waves of poverty, she said.
She warned about the charter school movement creating students “who don’t know a lot of things,” and firing good teachers. Teachers, she said, are the first line of defense in fighting poverty.
She encouraged everyone to pay attention to what’s going on and hold politicians accountable.
The country needs a Works Progress Administration, like what was created during the Great Depression, to rebuild bridges and roads and put people to work.
Individuals need to help others, people in their communities and organizations doing good work.
Butler praised one organization, Rolling Jubilee (www.rollingjubilee.org). As of Monday, it had $549,813 from donors and has wiped out $11 million in credit card debt.
“This happens because debt gets sold to creditors, it’s an investment for them,” Butler said. Rolling Jubilee buys credit card debt and contacts individuals to say, “Guess what? We paid off your credit card debt. We bought it and wiped it out.” It is, she said, “a brilliant way to knock down these awful predators.”
The country has to get back to the principles of King, caring for those in need, Butler said.
“If we don’t wake up,” the poor will no longer just be someone on television. “The poor will be right in front of you, in your families,” Butler said. “The poor might even be you.”