Low-wage essential workers—joined by economists, faith leaders, and a progressive lawmaker—gathered outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday to share their stories and encourage Congress to “look at the people behind the numbers” in debates about the Build Back Better budget reconciliation bill.
Federal lawmakers and the White House have been fighting for months about what to include in the climate and social programs package. While progressives argue that the proposed $3.5 trillion in spending over a decade is already a compromise, right-wing Democrats continue to push for major cuts.
Some participants in the Tuesday event, organized by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, took aim at two key advocates of scaling back Democrats’ package: Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
“We are not lazy and we are not asking for a handout,” declared Pam Garrison, a low-wage worker and tri-chair of the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign.
“Sen. Manchin, do your job,” she continued. “Take care of the people! Quit taking care of the corporations!”
Fellow West Virginian Kaylen Marie Barker also spoke, warning that “time has run out for the people in my state. We are literally starving. It’s time for Congress to act.”
“We’re no longer asking for help—we are demanding that you act now,” Barker said. “The Build Back Better plan can finally stop the generational poverty that’s been forced on Appalachia and people all across the country.”
Joan Steede of Phoenix said that “I hear all these women’s stories and they all sound the same.”
“We work much harder than what we get paid for,” said Steede, who has worked extra time without pay to care for aging veterans. “We will all some day get old and need care. And I will be there for you, and I will work for less than I’m worth because I care about other people. And I demand Congress back a bill that took so much work and time. Just do your job—build back America.”
Other speakers included a produce packer from Philadelphia, an unhoused DoorDash driver in Maryland, an advocate for victims of human trafficking in Mississippi, a low-wage worker on disability in New York, and a game-day employee at the University of Kentucky.
“Please help us,” said the Kentucky speaker, Adriel Downing, to lawmakers. “We get tired of asking for help. We don’t want to beg you. We shouldn’t have to beg you.”
Katrina Corbell, the New Yorker, emphasized that “this legislation is about me—the legislation is about us. It is about real people, low-wage essential workers.”
Corbell added that “it is shameful that Congress is debating that we cannot afford $350 billion a year for 10 years” while pouring so much into war-spending that the public doesn’t support.
“We shouldn’t be talking about trillions of dollars and just in terms of cost,” argued Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, who co-chairs the Poor People’s Campaign with Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis.
“The problem is we have gotten stuck in a numbers argument rather than a people argument.”
Rather than focusing on the package’s price tag, lawmakers should be thinking about how much it will “cost lives and hurt people not to build back better,” he said. “The problem is we have gotten stuck in a numbers argument rather than a people argument.”
Theoharis pointed out that “what we know and what this pandemic has laid bare is that women, people of color, poor communities, have been disproportionately impacted.”
Lawmakers who have the power to serve those most in need and are instead pushing for cuts are “compromising the lives of essential workers and the poor,” she added. “They’re sending a message that people’s lives and their work don’t matter, when we know that this is a lie.”
The low-wage workers who shared their stories weren’t alone in calling out lawmakers by name.
“We’ve heard the voices of the poor. We’ve heard the voices crying out, demanding justice,” said Rev. Angela Martin of the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign. “All I want to know right now, Joe Manchin, is which side are you on?”
“Are you on the side of poor and low-wealth persons who are crying out, who are suffering in the midst of this pandemic? Or are you here to represent your pockets?” she asked. “It’s really just as simple as that.”