The Voices of Marching Activists Call for Real Answers to Poverty

by Sevaun Palvetzian, Publications Intern

NOW President Patricia Ireland speaks at the New York City rally that culminated the month long march against poverty.  Photo by Karen Johnson.

Championing the rights of a seemingly voiceless majority, the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign led an international March of the Americas designed to alert the public and make governments accountable for the conditions of poverty in this hemisphere.

The Campaign, made up of 35 organizations of poor people from across the U.S. and throughout the Americas, began the 400-mile, month-long march in Washington, D.C., on Oct 1, with a send-off rally in which NOW chapter activists, staff and officers participated.  Traveling through Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the march concluded in New York where supporters met for a rally and presentation of their findings and demands to the U.N. in Manhattan.  The effort received international attention and support from a variety of domestic organizations, including NOW.

The gross economic disparities dividing North American society were emphasized in 1965 by John Porter's "The Vertical Mosaic."  In his book, Porter described the relationship between social class and power and the concentration of this country's wealth in the hands of a small minority.

Four economic cycles and hundreds of social initiatives later, this disparity continues.  Poverty in the midst of plenty haunts U.S. families in record numbers.  While Washington politicians applaud themselves for creating an environment of "unparalleled prosperity," more than 36.5 million U.S. residents fall below the official poverty level and 63.8 million meet a more honest measurement of poverty.

The Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), one of the primary organizers of the March of the Americas, reports that the richest one percent of the country owns nearly half its wealth, while the bottom 90 percent owns only 17.1 percent, a reality that violates standards that represent at least a theoretical consensus among countries of the world.

Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), signed by every member of the United Nations, all people are entitled to certain economic human rights.  In addition to the right to education, jobs at a living wage and fair working conditions, Article 25 of the UDHR recognizes that everyone has a right to shelter.  Despite this provision, an estimated 12 million U.S. adults have been homeless.  Article 25 also assures all people the right to health care—a promise that evades the 41.7 million in the U.S. who live without access to medical treatment.

NOW President Patricia Ireland and NOW Membership Vice President Karen Johnson joined the marchers in the final stretch from Irvington to Newark, N.J.  Johnson and Ireland spent time marching with farm workers from Florida and delegates from 11 other countries, and Ireland spoke at the final rally in New York City.

Johnson described the impromptu educational sessions that took place every night after dinner: "To see that kind of enthusiasm . . . listening to the tales of personal experience shared by women from Bolivia and other global communities underscored the importance of all of us working together to end poverty.

"Around the world and around the corner, the majority of people who live in poverty are women and their children," said Johnson.  "Feminists in the U.S. and abroad are determined to take bold steps to eradicate the poverty and violence that plagues women."

One such step for NOW is joining women from over 138 countries in support of the World March of Women 2000, a project that will bring global attention to the worldwide devastation of poverty and violence (see more on the march).  U.S. participation in the World March of Women will consist of two events: a national march organized by NOW in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, Oct. 15, and an international rally at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Tuesday, Oct. 17.

"Having a march shows solidarity," said Johnson. "It demonstrates that women care about these issues and asks the question, 'What are you, candidate, going to do about it?'"

As Election 2000 draws nearer and social issues begin to make their way onto platforms and into speeches, NOW activists will make sure that candidates hear the sounds, and feel the reverberations, of marching feet.

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