The Poor People’s Campaign Calls Out ‘Policy Violence’

Shortly after her husband was assassinated in 1968, Coretta Scott King spoke at a rally in front of tens of thousands of people, including members of the original Poor People’s Campaign. She reflected on society’s “routine” violence against people in poverty and minorities. “Starving a child is violence,” she said, and continued:

Suppressing a culture is violence. Neglecting school children is violence. Punishing a mother and her child is violence. Discrimination against a workingman is violence. Ghetto housing is violence. Ignoring medical needs is violence. Contempt for poverty is violence.

Today, a revived Poor People’s Campaign is making new use of the term “policy violence” to describe the impact of legislative decisions on people living in poverty. It is part of the campaign’s effort to shift the national conversation about poverty away from one that demonizes people struggling economically, to one that questions the morality of public policy choices that sustain and deepen poverty. 

“You’re not going to change the policies until you change the narrative,” Reverend Dr. William Barber III, campaign co-chair, told The Nation at a gathering of campaign organizers this summer. At a hearing on Capitol Hill in September, Barber argued that denying Medicaid, cutting food assistance, preventing a living wage, and apathy towards poverty are all “forms of political and policy violence” that “cause violence in the lives of children,” in particular.

Policy choices indeed leave an indelible physical and social-emotional mark on people in both the near- and long-term—there is no shortage of studies that shine a light on that fact. Children’s HealthWatch, a network of pediatricians and public health researchers in urban hospitals across the country, examines the impacts of policy on the health, nutrition, and development of children ages zero to four, and often on their caregivers too. “These policies don’t happen in a vacuum,” said Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba, executive director of the organization. “They are written on the bodies and brains of the family.”

Dr. Mariana Chilton, principal investigator for Children’s HealthWatch in Philadelphia, put it this way: “The experience of poverty in and of itself is a violent, traumatic experience, and it’s inflicted by policymakers and our own society.”

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