Campaigning Against Poverty: Then and Now

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age . . . The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.
—Martin Luther King, Jr. 1967

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign demonstration. On May 13, 1968, demonstrators gathered to hear remarks by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the leader who had the reins of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., just one month earlier. The Poor People’s Campaign was the fulfillment of King’s earlier vision and planning and brought thousands of poor people to Washington, D.C. to camp out day and night in a “City of Hope” on the National Mall.

Today also marks the beginning of an auspicious new initiative to end poverty. The Half In Ten campaign, rooted in this history of economic justice movements, launched this morning at a community organizing event in Philadelphia, PA. Half In Ten is chaired by former presidential candidate and senator John Edwards, and represents the joint efforts of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the Coalition on Human Needs, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Its goal is to engage communities across the nation in a joint effort to end poverty as we know it, using policy recommendations outlined in the Center for American Progress’ report “From Poverty to Prosperity: A National Strategy to Cut Poverty in Half” as a guide.

But as supporters gather today to hear the words of John Edwards, LCCR’s Wade Henderson, ACORN’s Maude Hurd, CAPAF’s John Podesta, and CHN’s Debbie Weinstein, they do so within a very different political context than demonstrators back in 1968. America is not reeling from the loss of some of its greatest leaders or functioning in an environment of ongoing political unrest in the form of riots and protests. However, there are some notable similarities between the 1968 and 2008 campaigns to end poverty; both derive their goals from the following basic principles:

  • There is no justification for poverty in America, and we should make every effort to eradicate it.
  • Poverty isn’t a black problem, a white problem, a southern problem, or a northern problem; it is an everybody problem that requires a joint effort to eradicate it.
  • Increasing worker wages is key to eliminating poverty.

The two campaigns were also born from similar political contexts. Both anti-poverty campaigns were formed in the shadow of war. The Vietnam and Iraq wars accumulated significant costs to the American people, negatively affecting domestic spending and the quality of social programs. Both campaigns also began as the nation prepared for important presidential elections that would ultimately have a great effect on a whole host of issues, including the effort to end poverty.

The similarities that tie these efforts together may be somewhat discouraging. It is apparent that the 1968 effort did not end poverty and the concerns about wages and income for low-income people still exist to such a degree that Half In Ten became necessary.

In 2008, certain factors should lead to more positive results. By some accounts, the nation has been embracing a political agenda focused on change. Half In Ten organizers have developed vast grassroots networks throughout the country and the capacity for valuable research and federal and state-level policy development. The organizations involved are building valuable partnerships with one another as well as with other leading advocacy groups, faith-based organizations, think tanks, and academics focused on the goal of ending poverty. And John Edwards, a significant poverty advocate, has joined the team.

The pieces are in place to cut poverty in half in 10 years, which would be a  first step toward eradicating it completely. To join the movement, please visit

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Joy Moses

Senior Policy Analyst