Capitol Report: Wall Street would benefit from lifting those left behind, Poor People’s Campaign leader says

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Rev. William Barber during a protest at the U.S. Capitol in 2017.

To hear Rev. William Barber tell it, Wall Street should be an natural ally of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

Barber is co-chair of the campaign, a reboot of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ill-fated Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. Fresh from victories over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King organized protests that demanded full employment, a guaranteed basic income and access to capital for minority businesses.

“[King] believed you could eradicate poverty. He believed that there was enough to go around,” Barber says.

But the planned protest could not survive the loss of its leader. King was assassinated in April of that year.

The revived movement commissioned an audit of the trends of poverty over the past 50 years by the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies, and decided to demand: a living wage, a single-payer healthcare system, steps to end “ecological” devastation,” and voting rights protections.

Barber, 54, a pastor of a protestant church in North Carolina, is much admired on the left. He built the ethnically diverse Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina and is credited for unseating a Republican governor.

Barber says the Poor People’s Campaign agenda would lift people up from the bottom, creating a stronger economy and thus be a boon to Wall Street.

Nearly 140 million people, 43.5%, are either poor or low income, Barber notes.

“You cannot have 43.5% of your people living as low-wealth poor in the wealthiest nation of the world. Eventually that base is going to implode,” he said.

Barber sat down with MarketWatch to discuss his views on King’s legacy and what Wall Street should comprehend about the movement.

First, let’s talk about the reboot of the Poor People’s Campaign. Many people don’t know that Martin Luther King began to focus on the economy at the end of his life. Can you talk about King’s thinking and why it is now a good time to revive his campaign?

Dr. King, in December 1967, did a sermon called “The Meaning of Hope” and in that sermon he talked about two Americas. There was a book that had been written during that period entitled “Two Americas” and he described it as one America being a place where there was plenty of opportunity, and growth, and jobs, and all the above, but then there was this other America. He recognized that the economic trauma and the economic pain of black people from, for instance, Alabama, and white people from Appalachia, were the same pain in terms of their poverty, in terms of their lack of healthcare, in terms of the way of which many of them had been pitted against each other in the South and they needed really to be allies.

There is just a slight piece about Dr. King that we have to correct and that is that he didn’t start thinking about economics until 1967. Actually, when he was in Montgomery [in 1956], he preached a sermon, “Paul’s Letter to America’s Christians” and he talked about how the 1% was ruling over and hindering the 99%. Of course, this was long before Occupied [Wall Street] talked about the 99%. Dr. King clearly understood theologically when he marched and fought and did non-violence to get the Civil Rights Act passed or the Voting Rights Act passed, he understood that those issues were moral issues – but moral issues are also economic issues. So there was a sense in which Dr. King always understood.

“If you participate in policies that only allow you to do stock buybacks, you’re actually undermining the very country that gives you the opportunity to prosper.”

Reverend Dr. William Barber

But, as he approached 1968 after his criticism of the war in April 1967, he came really to understand how poverty and racism and militarism were all connected, were all interlocked and that you had to, in fact, challenge all three in order for there to be fundamental change in this country. In fact, in his last sermon the night before he was shot, he challenged preachers saying, “many of you talked about long white robes over in heaven, but people need some shirts and shoes down here.” He was clear that there could be no full liberation until there was full access to prosperity in the economy. He believed you could eradicate poverty. He believed that there was enough to go around. But what happened is with militarism, racism and unjust economic systems it all came together in a trinity of evil and it needed to be challenged.

Many of Dr. King’s demands during the original campaign 50 years ago look relevant today: full employment, guaranteed income and access to capital for small and minority businesses.

Sure. But it says something about the failure of America. People often say the Poor People’s Campaign failed — it didn’t fail, it was killed. Dr. King was killed, Bobby Kennedy was killed. So you had the assassination and destruction of leaders. What failed was America failed to listen to Dr. King.

And what is sad today for us is that when we did, at the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, we first commissioned an audit to be done and we asked scholars and theologians and historians and impacted people to join with the Institute for Policy Studies and the Urban Institute and they put together an audit called “The Souls of Poor Folk” and they looked at four areas: systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation and the war economy. With this audit, [we] find out, yes, sadly to say, some of the problems are the same, some of them have been exacerbated and we have not done yet what Dr. King called on us to do. But we must. We must if we’re going to survive as a democracy. You cannot have 43.5% of your people living as low-wealth poor in a wealthiest nation of the world. Eventually that base is going to implode. What we have to say is: Yes, we do demand a living wage, we do fight for a guaranteed income, we are fighting for single payer healthcare for every citizen, and we are fighting for a right for clean water, clean air and clean land. And we are saying that we have to cut money for the military-industrial complex. We can’t keep putting all this money in war and not building at the community. And we do have to challenge those who attempt to use religion to talk about personal morality but then they don’t say a word about public-policy immorality and that is when you take people’s healthcare and you deny people access to living wages and the things that would better their lives.

Do you have a message for investors, for Wall Street?

I do, and I think our campaign does. One is, we know trickle-down economics does not work. I would say to those on Wall Street and in corporate America, you are undermining your own possibilities. If you undermine the country, if you participate in policies that only allow you to do stock buybacks, and to only enrich yourselves, you’re actually undermining the very country that gives you the opportunity to prosper.

Related: Tax-cut fueled cash buyouts, stock buybacks more than double wage growth

And what we need to be doing is lifting from the bottom. If you lift from the bottom then everybody is better — middle class, upper class. And I would call on people on Wall Street to have a conscience.

Wall Street shouldn’t be making decisions based on their own bottom line, but how is that decision going to impact the whole society. Because Wall Street has to have the society to exist.

For instance, Wall Street should be pushing for a living wage. Why? Because if you give people a living wage then that lifts people out of poverty. There are 58 million people making less than a minimum wage in America right now. If those people make living wages and their economic status rises, then they are going to purchase things in the society, and if they purchase things that’s going to benefit our corporations. So, on the one hand, it makes practical sense for Wall Street to embrace the kind of economics that is going to lift all people, particularly from the bottom. But in a more profound sense, Wall Street should recognize it has a responsibility to have a conscience. The Bible actually says, unto whom much is given much as required, and business leaders need to be number one in promoting fully funding public education. Business leaders ought to be number one in promoting healthcare for all. A more healthy society is a society where people can function better on the jobs, function better at work. Business should be on the front end of pushing for voting rights.

When I see businesses that say they’re not going to a go to a state if that state engages in passing legislation against gay and lesbian people, I’m excited. Thank you. That’s exactly what they should do. But they should also say to those same states that if you pass bills that promote voter suppression, we’re not going to bring businesses to that state, because we recognize when you undermine the right to vote you set the country up for autocratic leadership and autocratic leadership is never good, never good for business, never good for Wall Street, never good for the bottom line of the country because it’s so rooted in extremism and rooted in greed.

Now we see Wall Street is simply buying back stocks DJIA, -0.54%  . It is not investing in more people, investing in more jobs. It is not pushing for a living wage. So it is possible for Wall Street to be up but Back Street to be down, for Wall Street to be moving forward and Back Street to be moving backwards. And the problem with that is, if you undermine the society everybody gets hurt and that’s why we need business leaders and people of wealth who have a conscience — again, unto whom much is given much is required

The Trump Administration would point to the strong economic growth and say the best way to help poor people is to keep the economy growing strong.

Trump inherited a prosperous economy, and then he’s trying to take credit for where things are now and trying to discredit how well things were and how better things were. Wasn’t perfect, now. What I do say is that neither Democrat nor Republican have focused enough on the poor. The policies of Donald Trump are not going to help that. He says that Wall Street is up and everything is fine but actually that has proven time and time again that trickle-down economics don’t work. Because, on the one hand, he gets a big tax cut to corporations and his claim that the answer to everything is tax cuts to the wealthy. In the long run, his policies are going to be anti-growth and the anti-lifting up all Americans and anti-dealing with the issues of poverty and racism and ecologically devastation. And they’re surely not going to deal with the military and the war economy.

Related: Here’s the latest update to the Trump Scoreboard

At the same time he’s giving this massive tax cut that’s going to ultimately impact all the programs that actually help the poor and the low-wealth people to survive and to make it.

Wall Street may be going up, but wages are still down. Wall Street may be going up, but we know the businesses are not investing that money in building new factories and increasing wages. They may have given people a bonus, that’s not a wage increase, that’s just a one-time bonus. So following Donald Trump’s economics and the economics of Paul Ryan and other people that have supported in this trickle-down economic business, it’s like playing Three Card Molly. It is constantly bait-and-switch.