Thirteen Miles from Princeton: The Gospel of Possibility

This Saturday in downtown Trenton, amidst our state capital’s decay and abandonment, the sound of the sweet voices of the Solidarity Singers floated out of the Turning Point Methodist Church sanctuary carrying a gospel of possibility in the face of a cold hard rain.

“Somebody’s blaming poor people and it’s gone on far too long, it’s gone on far too long,  it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t be silent anymore,” sang the Solidarity Singers of the New Jersey State Industrial Union Council with folk guitar, drum, tambourine, and rhythmic clapping accompaniment.

Inside the 250 year-old church, close to 200 activists from every corner of New Jersey had gathered as part the New Jersey Poor People’s Campaign’s launching of an intensive 40 week campaign to motivate and inspire well over a million low wealth and low wage voters in the state, hundreds of thousands of whom don’t cast a ballot.

It’s a message of hope and potential redemption in 2024 at a time where just about every institution from the news media to the courts seemingly incapable of holding former President Trump accountable for his attempt to subvert the 2020 election by fomenting a violent insurrection of Jan. 6th as he closes in on his party’s nomination.

Trenton, a city of great historic significance during the American Revolution, has been permitted to fall into despairing poverty by a systemically corrupt political system that’s violent neglect has manifested in 3,000 vacant homes. Meanwhile a growing army of homeless are caught in the cruel and grossly immoral margins of a state that’s also home to stupefying wealth.

“We are challenging poverty and low wages for we know that poverty is the fourth leading cause of death in America—you won’t see it on CNN–you won’t see it on ABC—you won’t see it on Fox—you won’t see it on CBS but 800 people each day die due to poverty,” Pastor Rupert Hall told the racially diverse crowd of activists.  “If poor and low wage people voted at the same rate as others every political calculation would shift.”

Hall continued. “The Rev. Martin Luther King at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March said the great fear of the greedy aristocracy in the nation was for the masses of Negroes and poor Whites to come together and form a voting block that could change the economic architecture of the nation….Poverty and low wages are bad political choices and we cannot be disengaged from the political process…We are not just representing the poor and low wage [potential voters]  but we are standing up for people that think they are middle class—people that are one paycheck away from a problem.”

37 percent of  New Jersey’s households either live below the poverty line or struggle week to week to afford the basic necessities according to the United Way’s ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed)  Project has been tracking this cohort for over a decade.

Today, Hall observed that potential coalition nationally represents close to 85 million voters, almost a third of the electorate.  In New Jersey it’s close to 17 percent of the electorate while in key battleground states like Florida that under engaged cohort is over 43 percent of the voting eligible population, while in North Carolina its well over 41 percent.  Alabama it’s 47 percent.

The Trenton location was just one of over 30 similar gatherings across the country and in our nation’s capital that are a continuation of the work being done by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival being led by Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. It is  modeled on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1960s’ Poor People’s Campaign which attempted to build a multi-racial, interdenominational coalition of low wage and low wealth people historically excluded from American electoral politics both by law and custom.

In 2016, Trump carried Michigan by just 10,000 votes. 980,000 low wage voters did not turn out. If. 1.1 percent of those voters had bothered the results would have been different. Michigan was no exception. In North Carolina, Trump’s margin of victory was 170,000 votes while 920,000 poor and low wealth voters sat it out. If just 18.9 percent of those disengaged voters had been motivated to go to the polls history would have bent another way.

In the last few years two ground breaking studies, one linking our nation’s persistent poverty and our declining life expectancy ranking, and the second on the lack of voter turnout amongst the poor and low wealth cohort,  who are dying prematurely due to chronic disease and the lack of access to basic quality healthcare.

In 2023, David Brady, a professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of California Riverside., documented that risk factors related to cumulative poverty make being poor the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, greater than homicide that commandeers the headlines. In 2019, according to Brady’s research, poverty was linked to 183,000 deaths, or 500 hundred deaths per day — and that was before the Covid pandemic. Brady’s research is based on a panel study that tracked 20,000 people from 1997 to 2019. The study excluded subjects under 15 years old, meaning it did not include infant mortality — which has historically been exponentially higher for households of color.

His estimates are actually conservative.

Here in New Jersey, according to a 2023 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation our state has “among the most significant disparities” for  maternal health with Black infants more than three times as likely to die before their first birthday as their while peers.

“Thirteen miles separate Trenton from Princeton, and so do 15 years in life expectancy,” wrote NorthJersey.com’s Scott Fallon. “In Trenton — a city of mostly Black and Latino residents where 28 percent live in poverty — life expectancy is 73 years. In the mostly white college town of Princeton, where the median household income of $165,000 is more than four times that of Trenton, life expectancy is 87 years.”

A Columbia University study undertaken in 2020 of the 2106 electorate with the support of the Poor People’s Campaign discovered that a majority of this low wage voter cohort did not vote and when researchers surveyed a representative sampling of the group they learned the unengaged potential voters hadn’t turned out because they said they didn’t hear candidates discuss issues that had any relevancy to their lives.

Columbia University researcher Robert Paul Hartley  found that only 46 percent of voters with household income less than twice the federal poverty rate cast a ballot in 2016, as compared to a 68 percent turnout rate for voters who had a household income more than twice the poverty line. “They’re saying that they’re not voting because people are not speaking to their issues and that they’re just not interested in those candidates,” Hartley, told the New York Times. “But it’s not that they couldn’t be.”

So, low wealth voters even here in New Jersey are left out of our deliberations and opt for the sidelines, their disengagement reenforced by voter suppression, and campaign consultants who use their MIA status to justify the pursuit of that white suburban voter.

Dereck Branch, 61, is a homeless Trenton based poet who was one of the speakers at Saturday’s event. He recalled that a five years old he had visited the Poor People’s Resurrection City that was set up in Washington DC in 1968.

“I believe we live in a country where poverty has been industrialized—we know that one dollar trumps the voice of ten sensible people in this country—Being poor is an industry for some people—people that get rich of off us,” Branch told the crowd. “Keeping us poor is keeping people in big houses.”

“To keep things grounded in the reality of our own state I’ve been asked to share five facts about poverty [here in New Jersey]”, Rev. Mary Westfall told the audience. “Pandemic policies temporarily lifted the burden of poverty but ended too soon resulting in higher rates of economic, food and housing insecurity and sadly social welfare programs under threat with enhanced work requirements, budget cuts and partisan politics.”

Westfall added that making New Jersey’s $15.13 minimum wage an individual would have “to work 95 hours a week to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in one of the wealthiest nations in the world.” Perhaps even more disconcerting, over 25 percent of ‘Blue’ New Jersey’s workforce earn less that the state’s minimum wage Westfall observed.

For two hours attendees got to hear from a diverse group of activist speakers representing a wide array of issues ranging from labor rights to  ongoing environmental justice battles across the state.

Stacey Metzler was in attendance with 25 members of her Unitarian Universalist congregation based in nearby Washington’s Crossing. She left feeling energized for the work ahead.

“We are very close to Trenton and we’re really glad to be here,” Metzler told InsiderNJ on the way out.  “This will push us forward to get more connected and help those who have been marginalized to come out and vote. I hope there is more of this. We need to mobilize and unite.”

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4 responses to “Thirteen Miles from Princeton: The Gospel of Possibility”

  1. The New Jersey Poor People’s Campaign should not be using the Democrat Party to do their bidding. Democrats are the original slave owners. Democrats started the Civil War because they couldn’t keep their slaves. It resulted in the deaths of 600,000 Americans on our own soil–almost as many Americans killed in WWI & WWII. When the Democrats lost the Civil War, they started the KKK, the Red Shirts and the Brown Shirts, to block Reconstruction (1865-1877) to rebuild the South, unless they got their slaves back. Republican President Ulysses S. Grant had to send the Union Army back into the South to halt the Democrat slave owners from blocking Reconstruction.

    Democrats blocked the 1866 & 1871 Civil Rights Acts (the 13th and 14th Amendments). Republicans shamed them into voting to pass the laws and the Amendments. Democrat President Woodrow Wilson supported the KKK and hated blacks. His name was recently removed from the main building on the Princeton U. campus. Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was against giving special programs to blacks during the Great Depression and kept blacks out of fighting during WWII–until his own wife forced the issue. Democrats blocked the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, until it became apparent that Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) could lose his second term, and he forced the Democrats to vote for the laws. Democrats built all kinds of “projects”/”slums” for blacks to keep them “down on the plantation” while breaking up families by removing the fathers, giving crumbs of welfare, free housing (if fathers were removed from the family), free education, “free” healthcare, etc.

    Democrats (Communists) are NO FRIENDS of the black and/or Hispanic community(ies). They have historically kept blacks “down on the plantation” to get their votes. Democrat President Lyndon Johnson told Democrat Senators that if “we give N*****s everything for free, they’ll vote Democrat for the next 200 years”.

  2. Yes but the party’s have now switched positions so don’t cast this on the current Democratic party. It was the DEMOCRATIC President Lyndon Johnson who was key in the Civil RIghts movement with Dr. MLK… please… tell the truth…

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