As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m an active participant in the New Jersey Poor People’s Campaign. I want to share with you the most recent activity of the campaign and explain both its significance and how it helps us, the disabled community.
The Poor People’s Campaign along with House Representatives Barbara Lee and Pramila Jayapal have introduced the House resolution in order to help create a more just society. The full title of it is: Third Reconstruction: Fully addressing poverty and low wages from the
bottom up, which is a mouthful, but that’s how most resolutions are written.
The focus of the Poor People’s campaign is the eradication of poverty and helping to lift all marginalized groups in society to a more even footing.
As the disabled community is one of these marginalized groups, and disabled people are very often pushed into poverty, this resolution is definitely intended to include and support us.
What a resolution is(and isn’t)
Resolutions are basically the announcement of an intention. They aren’t laws and they have no legal power.
I actually have not one, but two “birth resolutions”, one passed by the Missouri House and the other by the Missouri Senate.
They were gifts to my mother, who was a lobbyist at the time.
Basically, it’s a big document with a lot of “whereas”es and other fancy language that talks about my parents and grandparents and my birthdate(and time) and how exciting it must be for my parents to have me.
And how the House of Representatives (or the Senate) wishes me and my parents the best.
It’s an interesting conversation piece, and looks impressive framed and hanging on my wall(mom hung it up at home), but that’s about it.
This resolution is a nice symbolic move, and a step in the right direction.
The most recent resolution that many people have heard of is The Green New Deal.
This is the same concept. It’s a statement by the House of Representatives(if enough sign on) that they intend to pass laws in the future that are in the same spirit.
Whether or not they will is a different matter.
Why is it called the 3rd Reconstruction?
This idea of reconstruction helps point out the bits of history that our textbooks generally gloss over: bias and discrimination aren’t being slowly but inevitably dismantled over time.
Instead, governmental policy undergoes sweeping and broad changes that impact society – and while sometimes it is accepted by the population, other times, there’s an eventual violent response that others in power don’t bother to penalize, and things backslide.
Also, during volitile change points, society can push back.
However, the protections provided are very often to the letter of the law, rather than the spirit in which they were written.
The periods of reconstruction are when the laws were changed by multiracial coalitions in order to greatly increase justice and equality.
The reconstruction era was the period after the Civil War – when huge strides were taken towards black civil rights(slavery was finally ended, and additional moves were made to reflect the changed relationship) – but violent responses by whites(often former members of the Confederacy) weren’t always penalized.
One example is the 1866 Massacre in New Orleans, where about 50 blacks and 3 whites were killed after former confederate soldiers(including police) attacked a group of blacks(some of whom had been union soldiers) during the Louisiana Constitutional Convention(where black voting rights were being discussed). While some of the white men involved were arrested, none actually were charged.
It’s likely that this event triggered many people to vote for more progressive candidates. The next year, the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution were passed – made possible by the supermajority of those new, progressive members of the House and Senate.
There are multiple examples during that time of blacks creating successful and prosperous communities – and white people then destroying them with minimal reprocussions.
The second reconstruction was the civil rights era, when segregation and other practices were dismantled, and black people were no longer second-class citizens in the eyes of the law.
The rest of this post will explore how this document specifically handles the disabled identity.
Recognizing the disabled community
Relatively early on in the document, the disabled community is recognized as an impacted group.
Whereas of the approximately 60 million adults with disabilities in the country, 26 percent are living below the poverty line, 10 percent are uninsured, and 7 million students with disabilities are enrolled in our public schoolsThird Reconstruction: Fully addressing poverty and low wages from the
bottom up. House Resolution for the 117th Congress, 1st session
It’s possible that this is an undercount, but it’s good to know that they thought of us enough to mention us and detail both our significance and some of the challenges we face.
As I’ll discuss below the number of people under the poverty line does not represent how many of us are struggling financially, but only the people who are under an intentionally weak measurement of financial difficulty.
It’s good that we were identified and mentioned as we are so often uncounted, discounted, or ignored.
The Poor People’s campaign focuses on poverty and marginalized identities that are often forced into poverty, and the disabled community absolutely fits that definition.
Equitable education for disabled students
One of the goals within the document is to support student communities.
Guaranteeing accessible, diverse, safe, high-quality, equitable public education and accessible education infrastructure from pre-K–12 for all children, ensuring that higher education is free to everyone who wants to attend, and protecting and expanding public resources for students with disabilities.Third Reconstruction: Fully addressing poverty and low wages from the
bottom up. House Resolution for the 117th Congress, 1st session
Public education for people with disabilities shouldn’t be an issue, but ableism continues to exist, and too many programs are underfunded or poorly managed.
While all schools are now supposed to be accessible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act(IDEA), not all actually are.
Also, there are many other types of accommodations that students may need, and schools do not always do a good job of following through on those protections.
I recently saw a young man share his story of how the flourescent lighting in the temporary classroom he was in would trigger his seizures almost daily.
Due to the impacts of the seizures, his grades suffered tremendously, which prevented him from being eligible for any financial aid when he was applying for college the next year.
He was being awarded with funding so he could develop a collection of resources and supports for students with disabilities so they could advocate for themselves if their schools were practicing ableism as his had.
He also was developing a scholarship program specifically for fellow students whose grades had suffered due to their school’s ableism.
Less than a generation ago, schools were not required to be accessible, and many disabled people had incredibly substandard education if they were educated at all.
If we could ensure that all disabled children had full access to quality education, our community would experience many more opportunities – and many abled folks would be more likely to encounter disabled people during their education, potentially reducing ableism and stigma.
Updating the poverty definition and guidelines
One of the other demands within the resolution is that the federal definition of poverty and guidelines around distribution from social welfare programs be adjusted.
This is essential, as the current definition of poverty is much lower than reality.
Basically, despite pressures that have decreased the value of the dollar over the past fifty years, and the changing needs of the population(such as internet access), the definition of poverty hasn’t changed since it was created in 1963, beyond a simple annual adjustment based on inflation.
The woman who created the poverty measurement did not intend it to be used the way it has been, but rather she was specifically focused on the cost of food and created a very simple calculation based on the tendency of households to spend roughly 1/3 of their income on food at that time.
While Social Security Disability benefits are unaffected by poverty measures, the SSI program as well as the other programs that make up the social welfare safety net generally include this definition of poverty in their calculations.
Currently programs built on the social welfare systems are underfunded and painfully difficult to both apply for and make use of – but recalculating the poverty measurement is likely to help more people get the help they need when they actually need it, rather than months to years after they desperately needed the help.
Fully funding social welfare programs
Between 2008 to 2019, almost 110,000 people died while waiting for their appeal after their initial denial of SSDI benefits.
While you can’t expect to get disability coverage overnight, the waits at this point are incredibly long, and these delays can be deadly.
One large chunk of the problem is that most social welfare programs, including social security, are not fully funded and are often understaffed as a result.
There also are more people applying for disability, in large part because of the economy.
When things are booming, folks in borderline situations can find jobs- when employers cut back, bias can influence those decisions on who gets kept.
Plus many folks who were squeaking by on the gig economy can find that their work opportunities may dry up.
Covid-19 has exacerbated all of these issues.
These programs also may not be getting enough money, and so reduce the payments to eligible applicants, or reduce their staff, increasing the stress levels of those who remain.
This also makes the process take longer, again increasing the pressure on both the applicants and those processing the applications.
By fully funding these programs, it should become less stressful to apply for them, and people should recieve the benefits they need at a faster rate and possibly a higher amount(especially combined with the above-mentioned readjustment of the poverty measurements).
As things stand, applying for these programs is stressful and highly stigmatizing, and the benefits are generally less than what is truly needed.
Many disabled folks either are overwhelmed by the thought of applying for these programs, or give up when they receive their first denial.
It’s especially painful to apply for disability supports, and with the current tendency of staff to primarily view themselves as gatekeepers, the application process often feels overwhelming.
While the ADA has pushed organizations to better accomodate our needs, the underfunding problem mentioned in the resolution impacts us as well – with long waits to get supports, overly complicated applications, accessibility repairs/maintenance given low priority, and discrimination in hiring, the disabled community is trapped in a space of poverty.
Medicare for all
Simply having universal healthcare would dramatically help the disabled community by removing the fear of losing our healthcare.
Currently, the Disability system eligibility is based on the combination of having a disabling condition AND proof that your earnings(and assets for SSI) are not “substantial” enough.
If they think you could do any form of work, you can be rejected for the program.
Medicaid provides a variety of supports for people with various physical disabilities, including respite care, in-home aides, and other necessities.
To maintain this coverage, you need to remain financially eligible for Medicaid in most cases(though some states have created exceptions like the New Jersey Workability program), which generally means an income at or close to the poverty line.
If we had universal health care, the pressure to maintain financial eligibility for disability programs would likely diminish.
As things stand, our healthcare system is broken, bloated, and overly expensive.
Having a consistent insurance provider is often essential for our peace of mind, and the idea of changing insurance, or worse becoming uninsured, literally can have life-or-death consequences for many of us.
Currently, your employer controls many aspects of your options for health insurance, with the alternative being the government-funded programs that those of us with disability coverage receive.
If we could separate employment and health insurance(like we would by having universal health care), those of us with disabilities would have much less stress and anxiety about the idea of working and are more likely to be willing to explore employment options when we are doing well enough.
The Intersectional nature of the disabled identity
Like any other identity there’s more to our identity than just being disabled.
For example, I am also bisexual, white, and female. There’s a lot of other aspects to my identity as well, but I don’t want to go too deep into the weeds.
The one other mention of disability in the resolution was associated with an intersection that I’m aware of, but haven’t previously written about:
Whereas of the 19 million veterans in the Nation, 5.4 million are on disability, nearly 38,000 are homeless, and 7 to 18 percent of military families and veterans are on food assistanceThird Reconstruction: Fully addressing poverty and low wages from the
bottom up. House Resolution for the 117th Congress, 1st session
While many in the military are disabled due to physical injuries(and are more likely to survive those injuries due to improved medical care), there’s a growing percentage whose disabilities are mental-health associated.
There is a lot of stigma attached to mental illness, and the military is one of the groups that tends to be especially discouraging towards admitting to mental illness.
We have a huge shortage of mental health supports in this country, and poverty itself is a traumatic experience.
The military is far from the only community to discriminate against its members with disabilities, the disabled community often faces discrimination from many of our intersectional identities as well as from society as a whole.
As a queer disabled person, I am mostly able to participate in bi and pride events because I can “pass” as abled, but generally, Pride events are not designed to be accessible.
BlPOC disabled individuals are especially likely to face police violence, especially those within the d/Deaf community and those with mental illnesses.
Being disabled effectively increases your likilihood of being discriminated against based on any other marginalized identity that you may have, or by others who share others who share other aspects of identity.
This is true for most, if not all, marginalized identities.
The resolution won’t solve that, but it is designed to help every marginalized identity they could think of, so it won’t just improve our situation as disabled people, but help other identities that we may also have.
Recognizing Structural Ableism
I combed through the entire document and the quotes above were literally the only references to disability I could find throughout the entire text.
I’m a bit frustrated by that, as that’s more evidence of the systemic bias against disabled people.
We are too often the afterthought, the last minute mention.
If we’re considered, it’s in the sense of “this will help them too” rather than “Let’s help the disabled community.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act has been a great step forward, but that was 30 years ago. We deserve more – including prioritizing accessibility feature maintenance throughout all government agencies.
We’re still facing a lot of discrimination, and as I’ve mentioned previously, most of society is still structured with the presumption of abled heteronormativity.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I fully support this resolution.
I just think that it’s really important to deconstruct and deeply understand why things work the way they do, and the limitations inherent to any gestures made.
Want to join the Poor People’s Campaign?
As we become more of a presence in the group, we improve the odds of influencing the consideration of the disabled community.