To End Poverty in the United States, End Militarism | Opinion

Movement leaders—including the Revs. William J. Barber II and Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the influential Poor People's Campaign—recently joined Representatives Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) on the U.S. Capitol lawn.

Together they launched a visionary resolution to end poverty across the United States: the Third Reconstruction, which Lee and Jayapal introduced to Congress in late May. With a title asserting its place in U.S. history alongside the Reconstructions of the post-Civil War period and the 1960s civil rights movement, the text provides a blueprint for nothing less than a transformation of this country.

The bill reflects the Poor People's Campaign's powerful call for moral revival, based on the idea that ending poverty—for all of the 140 million poor and low wealth people of this country—requires ending all the interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological crisis and militarism.

It calls for a range of transformations—including a living wage and jobs guarantee, universal health care, immigration reform and green infrastructure—that have circulated separately for years. But Congress rarely links poverty to militarism.

Representative Cori Bush (D-Mo.), a newly elected member who emerged as a leading Black Lives Matter activist in Ferguson after the police killing of Michael Brown, spoke of her own history facing poverty as a single, African American mother of two, working a minimum wage job and worrying every day about where she would find money to buy food for her kids.

Asking the same question for the whole country, she found an answer: the Pentagon.

"Where is the money for social services, for health care?" she asked. "That $50 billion we will save by withdrawing from Afghanistan, that could permanently end homelessness. Think about that. That's what we mean when we say poverty is a policy choice. ... And we choose affirming life over inflicting violence."

The Third Reconstruction resolution calls for a major redirection of spending away from the Pentagon and toward human needs, noting that "53 cents of every federal discretionary dollar go to the Pentagon, while only 15 cents go toward antipoverty programs."

And beyond freeing up money for social programs at home, it will also reduce the harm caused by U.S. military aggression globally.

It admits that United States' wars since 2001 have killed more than 800,000 people and displaced 37 million. At home, it notes that almost 38,000 veterans are homeless. It adds that, as the Pentagon's militarism infects policing in this country, there have been "over 1,000 police killings every year since 2013, with Black, Native, and Indigenous people more likely to be killed by police."

Soldier sits atop a U.S. military vehicle
A soldier sits atop a U.S. military vehicle, part of a convoy arriving from northern Iraq, driving through the countryside of the Syrian northeastern city of Qamishli on October 26, 2019. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

The resolution poses a long-term vision for changing those realities, noting that "experts have identified up to $350 billion in defense spending cuts that would both save resources and keep the country safe and secure." The result of such a massive cut—almost half the military budget—would mean not only money saved, but also fewer people killed, fewer cities destroyed and less environmental devastation.

That's the aspirational part—the "whereas" clauses of the long resolution. But the "resolved" clauses are powerful as well, including longstanding demands of anti-war campaigners that go far beyond what most imagined would ever make it into a real congressional resolution.

The resolution calls specifically to cut the military budget by at least 10 percent, repeal existing war authorizations and restore Congress' war powers, move toward nuclear disarmament, curtail the use of broad economic sanctions, repeal the Pentagon's 1033 program that provides military equipment and weapons to domestic law enforcement agencies and end mass incarceration and violent policing.

Representative Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who directed the House prosecution of former President Donald Trump after the January 6 insurrection, joined the gathering to signal his support. He identified the Poor People's Campaign as the "moral center of American politics right now" and contrasted the broad non-violent movement in the U.S. with the violent insurrection. "Violence doesn't work, as I hope we proved to our friends on January 6," he said.

Speaking while the Israeli assault on Gaza was still underway, Raskin added unequivocally, "War doesn't work—and we're seeing that in the Middle East right now. War doesn't work. Forget about whether you are in principle for or against war, war doesn't work."

After two decades of skyrocketing military budgets and a failed "war on terror" undermining human lives and rights, transformations are desperately needed. The emerging alliance between the Poor People's Campaign and progressive members signals a rising willingness both inside and outside of Congress to challenge the militarism and racialized poverty that have for centuries remained at the core of U.S. society.

This challenge may signal a Third Reconstruction worthy of the history books.

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.