Commentary: King’s legacy, Biden’s promises: It’s time to deal with poverty

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It’s been 53 years since Luther King Jr. demanded economic and human rights for impoverished people through the Poor People’s Campaign. Paying taxes should ensure that basic needs, such as health care and education, job security, housing and racial justice, are not subject to corporate profit, but representative of the “common good” referenced in our Constitution.

Over the past year, the pandemic shined a bright light on the naked truth about the economic, environmental and health disparities affecting people of color in our communities and country. This blinding reality gave birth to the 14 Policy Priorities by the Poor People’s Campaign’s National Call for a Moral Revival. This outcry may motivate, at last, the seeds of change for more than 40% of Americans struggling economically, among them thousands of impoverished Delawareans.

Passage of a pandemic stimulus package, one of the campaign’s 14 Policy Priorities for the first 100 days of the Biden administration, could make the difference in the life of Kathie Sturgis, a minimum-wage worker who testified at a Poor People’s press conference: “In my former job, I assisted others to get help. Now, I am the one using that information, since I got COVID-19 and surgeries followed. I survived without a job, spending what I had saved for a trip. And when I ran out of those savings, I feared not being able to pay my rent. The stimulus check came, saving me from homelessness.”

If President Joe Biden uses the political power that African American, Latino, Native American, Muslim and Asian communities endowed him with by their votes, the 14 Policy Priorities could have massive impact when most needed.

Prompt immigration reform is one of those priorities. We know the history of America has been to “undocument” people. Using the law as an effective instrument, first Europeans from Spain and England migrated to this country, usurping the population that was already here. Part of their strategy was to deny rights of ownership or opportunities to the indigenous Americans who preceded them for thousands of years in this land. They were made the first undocumented people with no legal claim — or documents — to the land their ancestors had worked and improved for centuries. Later, using law and skin color, African people brought here as slaves were made to be undocumented, and denied civil and human rights so they could be legally exploited as property. More recently, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 formally designated two types of citizens: documented and undocumented.

“Karina Roblero” (a fictitious name to protect her identity) shows the need for health care for all. This single mom, an undocumented essential worker, labored in the poultry industry at the height of the pandemic, when Sussex County Councilman Sam Wilson said that “it was a dumb idea” to test poultry workers for COVID-19. Working in cramped conditions, Karina got the virus while she was pregnant. With no health care or personal transportation, Karina walked to a drugstore to find medicine for her symptoms. To feed her family, after regaining some strength, Karina went back to work. Her symptoms, while less severe, persisted. At work, a chemical substance sprayed into her eye. Management told her to rest for three weeks. Her eye healed somewhat, but when she tried to return to work her job was no longer available.

Another priority increasing the minimum wage from $7.25/hour to $15/hour, the minimum needed to support a family. At the youthful age of 9, Brandon Garcia appeared at the Delaware Poor People’s Campaign press conference in a video he sent to avoid missing classes. Garcia, a U.S. citizen and the child of undocumented parents, said: “All need to get vaccines and $15 minimum wage because my parents work hard in the fields and the poultry industry.” And he added: “We need immigration reform, so that my parents stay where they belong: in our home. I do not want to fear for my parents (being) taken away from me.”

It is hard to understand how and why, in 2021, people can work full time as essential workers in jobs critical to our economy and paying taxes, yet have to live in poverty, in the constant threat of losing their meager homes, jobs and, most importantly, their families.

These issues have been swept under the rug for so long. COVID-19 has forced the blatant health and economic disparities experienced by immigrants and communities of color into the headlines. Now that everyone knows, it is time to change it, with a real American commitment to liberty and justice for all.

Charito Calvachi-Mateyko is co-chair of the Delaware Hispanic Commission and a member of the Delaware Coordinating Committee for the Delaware Poor People’s Campaign.