So far, the news coverage of the 2024 campaign has fixated around Donald Trump’s alleged criminality and President Biden’s advanced age. There’s precious little discussed about truly consequential issues facing the American people like the dramatic decline of our life expectancy for all races but especially for people of color.
“Overall life expectancy declined by 2.7 years between 2019 and 2021, with AIAN [American Indians and Alaska Natives] people experiencing the largest life expectancy decline of 6.6 years, followed by Hispanic and Black people (4.2 and 4.0 years, respectively), and a smaller decline of 2.4 years for White people,” reported the Kaiser Family Foundation.
In a less distracted democracy, the actual well-being of the polity would be at the heart of the debate. Yet, with so many deep pocketed vested interests banking on keeping the status quo, the political discourse centers on just about everything else.
Perhaps, it’s all the corporate news propaganda about American ‘exceptionalism’ which helps us exempt ourselves from an honest self-reflection. Such an exercise would include inconvenient statistics that show we rank 44th in the world in terms of life expectancy with experts predicting that by 2040 we will drop much lower.
This was a troubling trend that predated COVID and in fact may have contributed to the stark reality that while we are just 4 percent of the world’s population, we were at least 12 percent of the world’s COVID deaths. Adding insult to national injury, even before COVID hit, we spent much more than any other industrialized nation on health care yet had the worst outcomes.
“Life expectancy in the United States — the Institute for Health Metrics is Seattle ranked us in the 40s worldwide for life expectancy,” Gregg Gonsalves, from the Yale School of Public Health, told several hundred delegates to the Poor People’s Campaign Moral Poverty Action Congress that gathered in Washington D.C. this week. “That does just not mean [ranking below] France and Germany it means [below] other countries much, much poorer than we are. By 2040, we will be in the 60s in global health rankings in terms of life expectancy.”
He continued. “We came out being the highest per capita death rate from COVID and the highest excess deaths from COVID among the G-7, the big rich industrialized democracies. It’s not rocket science. We didn’t invest in healthcare. We didn’t invest in social protections, and it came back to bite us basically.”
The Poor People’s Campaign Moral Poverty Action Congress drew close to 1,000 social justice activists and faith leaders from over 30 states including several attendees from New Jersey who went on to lobby Congress this week after the briefing.
The PPC, under the leadership of Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, is carrying forward into the 21st century the work of the Poor People’s Campaign that was led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.
Gonsalves’s remarks were made in response to a presentation by Professor David Brady, with the School of Public Policy at the University of California Riverside of a multi-year study he recently published that documented poverty was a greater risk factor than the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. In 2019, according to Brady’s research, poverty was linked to 183,000 deaths, or 500 hundred deaths a day, and that was before COVID.
Brady’s research is based on a ‘panel study’ that tracked 20,000 people from 1997 to 2019 which excluded subjects under 15 years old which also meant it did not include infant mortality, which has historically been exponentially higher for households of color. For Brady, those qualifications meant that his findings on the impact of poverty on mortality were “conservative.”
Brady told the audience that his tracking research documented a clear linkage between poverty, race, and pre-mature death. Those trends would help contribute to America’s overall life expectancy decline. He said that for several decades the U.S. poverty rate at 17 percent had been well above the 9 to 10 percent of the population reported in peer nations like France and Germany.
The foundation for race based economic and health disparities is apparent early on in life, according to Brady’s analysis.
“The reality is child poverty in the U.S. 10 is percent for White kids, which is too high, but it’s a similar rate of poverty to what we see in Germany and France,” Brady told the audience. “The reason why the United States has such high poverty is that we have egregiously high child poverty for Black, Latino and Native American children. In the U.S. a third of African American children are poor. No country in the history of rich democracies has had a child poverty rate that high.”
Perhaps most disconcerting was Brady’s observation that that there were three times as many poor people who were employed than those who were not working.
Barber said that Brady’s data underscored the need “for a moral movement” that “connects the dots and the injustices” that’s resulted in the nation having 140 million poor and low-income people, a statistic that includes those below the poverty line and also those that struggle month to month to make ends meet.
“That’s why in this movement we can tell you that there are 26 million poor and low wealth Black people, that’s 60 percent of the Black population—there’s 30 percent of White people that are poor and low wealth, that’s 66 million…If your poor and you can’t pay your light bill, when the lights go off, we are all Black in the dark,” Barber said.
“We are that movement that puts everybody in the room…a Black woman from Alabama in the same space as a Kentucky coal miner and we put the Kentucky coal miner in the same space as a Native indigenous brother and his suicided children,” Barber observed. “And what we recognize is that everybody has the right to live…because the truth of the matter is if you die from cancer, you don’t die Black — you don’t die White — you don’t die Republican — you don’t die Democrat. You die dead.”
Pastor Ruppert Hall, 68, leads Trenton’s Turning Point United Methodist Church. He was in the audience and was inspired by what he heard.
“This is my first event for the Poor People’s Campaign, and I have already commented this morning that I am energized to see Dr. King’s legacy is more than just ‘picking up trash’ on a day of service,” Hall told InsiderNJ. “I am energized to see that Rev. Barber has taken up the mantle and I have seen it firsthand, and I understand how he has put into practice most of what Dr. King spoke about in Memphis that night. Many people don’t realize that his last speech in Memphis was centered on economic equality and the Poor People’s Campaign is centered on equality or everyone across the board — understanding that as you lift from the bottom – everybody gets raised and this is consistent with my personal theology.”
Hall said his congregation, one of the oldest in the nation, had to grapple with “a lot of hopelessness and inequality” in a state where there are neighborhoods where a majority of the households live below the poverty line or struggle month to month to get by.
“I am chairman of a non-profit that maintains a 364-unit affordable housing complex which is coming upon hard times, and we are right now seeking to do some renovation but it’s a complex of poor people—low-income people that we are struggling to get city officials to understand that as the poor people are treated, so goes your city,” Hall said.
On Tuesday, up on Capitol Hill the PPC campaigners fanned out for their Congressional office assignment.
Newark Pastor Gloria Jones Swieringa, 85, a Barringer High School graduate was the first blind student to be admitted to the National Honor Society who went on to become a lifelong activist working on the regional, state, and national level with a concentration on disability rights as well as economic and social justice issues.
“What people need to know most is that most of all they count — they matter because poverty— job loss — horrible living conditions make them feel like they don’t matter but these things don’t exist because they have to,” Swieringa told InsiderNJ before she set off on her lobbying assignment. “They exist because they are political decisions and that’s what we have to change the narrative about.”
PPC delegate Alison Hayes grew up in Little Silver. She became an activist as a consequence of having to navigate the social service system after she was diagnosed with functional neurological disorder, FND.
“I have been dealing with it for 20 years and because of it I had to get on Social Security Disability at the age of 23, Hayes said. “Basically, my career plans didn’t happen, and I was pretty much forced into the borderline of poverty within two years of graduating college.”
Hayes hopes through her activism to improve the system she knows so well.
“And one of the big things for especially the social welfare and disability programs—they are built around proving yourself to be a failure which is really damaging to self-esteem and self-efficacy which makes it even harder to recover once you are on these programs and the social welfare programs are all built around financial limits that they don’t clearly explain to you,” Hayes said. “So, in trying to better yourself you end up losing assistance that’s worth more money than what you have gained financially.”
Rachel Dawn Davis, 40, has two children and is the Public Policy and Justice organizer with Waterspirit, a Rumson based spiritual ecology non-profit. She told InsiderNJ that being involved with the Poor People’s Campaign was a logical extension of her grass roots work for environmental justice.
“When I was 20, I personally connected with grief of veterans coming back from conflicts for a society that very much took for granted their sacrifices,” Davis said. “So, I started as an anti-war activist after I had a class in income inequality. Why are we at war in the first place when it is so wasteful? What about peace, gardening, and farming. We could ensure everyone had enough food, water shelter and creatively regenerated the earth together.”
On Tuesday, before she set out with Hayes and Swieringa to walk the halls of Congress, she told InsiderNJ that the PPC policy briefings that linked premature death and poverty had fortified her for the challenges ahead.
“Just having all this data that is fresh is going to shake some people to their core—or I hope it will and frankly it should because poverty is a policy choice, and it always has been and now we see that there are statistics that have never been studied before and now they’ve been studied and they can’t be unseen,” she said.
PPC activist Karen Szczepanski, 67, lives in Montclair and has been a lifelong labor activist working with the CWA, HPAE, the state’s largest nurses’ union and then with 1199SEIU.
“This has been an amazing experience meeting people from all over the country and hearing stories—sharing our frustrations and hopes actually that we can change the direction of the country and make it a better place for everybody,” Szczepanski told InsiderNJ about the PPC gathering.
Szczepanski said the reception the PPC delegation got ranged from polite to very enthusiastic. “Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman’s (D-12th) been extremely supportive,” she said.
PPC activists reported that briefings with staff from Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-10th) and Rep, Bill Pascrell (D-9th) went very well as did a meeting with Senator Cory Booker’s staff.
“Those meetings were pretty positive and gave us a path forward with doing some more work in New Jersey in terms of some town halls or speak outs on poverty in New Jersey so we can start to change the narrative on poverty in New Jersey,” Szczepanski said.
Those sessions contrasted with other interactions the PPC crew had.
“We had very brief meetings with legislative staff where they took the materials and kind of herded us out, but it wasn’t really a dialogue,” Szczepanski added. “We have three Republicans in that delegation who were surprised to see us.”