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After Fifty Years, Why the Poor People’s Campaign is More Relevant Than Ever


By Lauren Walker (Graduate Intern, APA Office on Socioeconomic Status)

The Poor People’s Campaign (May 12, 1968 – June 24, 1968) was a national multiethnic movement that sought to gain economic justice for poor people in the United States. The campaign was in response to the shortcomings of the War on Poverty. Its impact drew attention to the crisis of poverty in America. Fifty years later, the Poor People’s Campaign is still a much-needed force for shedding light on the lives of 43 million Americans living in poverty. Psychological science has extensively documented the mental and physical health impacts of poverty over the lifespan.

In 1964, an estimated 35 million Americans (19 percent) lived below the poverty line. By 1966, nearly four in ten black Americans were poor (41.8 percent) compared to one in ten white Americans (11.3%). For many civil rights leaders, these statistics marked an important transition to focus on the problem of poverty. On December 4, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) announced their plan for the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, DC.  More than 100 cities, with Detroit and Newark being the most destructive, erupted in race riots that same year. The Kerner Commission Report of 1968 revealed that discrimination, poor housing conditions, and a lack of opportunity were at the root of race riots in U.S. cities. The landmark government report was instrumental in raising awareness of the economic consequences of segregation on the lives of Black Americans.

The Poor People’s Campaign aimed to address issues of poverty and economic and housing disparities for all people regardless of race. This coalition of poor people would show how poverty intersect across race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and geography. Demonstrators would lobby Congress to pass antipoverty legislation to alleviate the employment and housing problems of the poor. Following King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, SCLC President Ralph Abernathy spearheaded the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, DC. In mid-May, thousands of demonstrators began arriving in the nation’s capital and erecting an encampment named Resurrection City on the National Mall. The campaign held a mass rally on June 19, 1968 (Solidarity Day) featuring speeches by SCLC leaders, activists, and politicians. Religious groups, civil rights groups, and labor unions also held a strong presence at the event. Police removed remaining tents from the National Mall on June 24, 1968 when the permits had expired.

The aftermath of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 did result in federal investment in nutrition programs, such as the expansion of food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and more government funding for school lunch programs at public schools with large populations of economically disadvantaged students (National School Lunch Program). However, the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign— federal funding for antipoverty programs, full employment, a guaranteed annual income, and the construction of affordable housing—largely remained unheeded by policymakers.

While the poverty rate has decreased since 1964, poor people still suffer disproportionately from hunger and malnutrition, poor education, inadequate health care, joblessness, and dilapidated housing. In 2016, 18.5 million Americans lived in deep poverty, defined as 50 percent below the federal poverty line. Those in deep poverty represented 45.6 percent of those in poverty. Substantial wealth disparities exist between families of different racial and ethnic groups. For example, black and Hispanic families have considerably less wealth than white families.

Public policies, government funding, and reforms to safety-net programs increasingly reflect stereotypes of the poor, for example, the increasing imposition of work requirements in programs assisting with medical care, nutrition, and housing. Other major factors driving inequality are the declining value of the minimum wage, the lack of affordable housing, the criminalization of the poor, and the proliferation of low-wage work.

These trends underscore the need for policy solutions that promote economic security and equality of opportunity. Psychological research indicates that poverty has negative impacts on health, family functioning, cognitive functioning (e.g., scarcity), trauma/chronic stress, and academic and professional success. Attitudes toward the poor also serve as a barrier to opportunity (e.g., the myth of meritocracy).

APA is working to protect access to health care, boost the minimum wage, and defend other programs that help low-income people. APA advocates for federal policies and programs that help low-income individuals and groups gain access to needed services in order to support their mental and physical health. The Office on Socioeconomic Status (OSES) has a number of featured articles from the quarterly newsletter, The SES Indicator, that draw attention to poverty-related stigma.

This year several events are planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign. Over the next six weeks, thousands of Americans are expected to participate in protests in Washington, DC and across the country between May 13, 2018 and June 23, 2018. Psychologists are well-positioned to challenge biases, stereotypes, and prejudicial attitudes that lead to discriminatory behaviors and economically unjust and ineffective public policies. Here is how to get involved:

  1. Join a campaign event in your local community against poverty and injustice.

  2. Advocate for antipoverty legislation by writing a letter or meeting with your legislator.

  3. Write an op-ed in the newspaper about the psychological effects of poverty.

  4. Subscribe to the OSES’ SES Network and Email List to share information, raise questions, and identify critical problems related to socioeconomic status.

This is a unique opportunity to work towards reviving King’s mission to end poverty in America.


Lauren Walker is a Spring 2018 graduate intern in the Office on Socioeconomic Status at the American Psychological Association. She is a master’s student in sociology at George Washington University. Her research interests include social stratification/inequality, race/ethnicity, education, and urban affairs.

Image source: Getty Images


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