Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
At this unprecedented time of injustice in the United States, what does “power” mean for low-income families? How can a national movement of low-income families effect change to create a more equitable and just society?
This past year, Americans have witnessed the wealth gap deepen into a chasm, while bias, discrimination, and injustice continue to undermine opportunities for families. Yet it is also a time of great potential for building power to face these issues from the ground up.
Building the power of poor and low-income families to end poverty has been the guiding principle of Marguerite Casey Foundation’s work since 2001. We envision a society where all families have the opportunity to realize their dreams, and we are dedicated to nurturing a national movement of low-income families advocating on their own behalf—one powerful enough to create solutions to poverty and injustice.
Across the country, the nonprofits and networks we support are winning hard-fought victories across the dividing lines of policy issues, geography, race, gender, resource scarcity, and economics. What have we learned about power through these wins? What can we do better or differently?
Families, communities, and organizations are generating the answers every day. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from our grantee partners.
The power of networks: agency
Families do not experience poverty one issue at a time; they may face racial discrimination, unemployment, lack of education opportunities, and hunger simultaneously. To span these multiple issues, we need strategies and networks that unify families, organizations, and communities around collective actions.
The power of networks is especially important as various organizations fighting on behalf of low-income families have overlapping policy priorities, and compete for the same resources and attention in a saturated landscape. The fate of the movement for economic and racial justice depends on our ability to connect across issues and work together.
For example, the tremendous achievement of passing a state-level, living-wage law in California—the most populated and wealthiest state—paradoxically had negative implications for families who rely on childcare subsidies to survive. The law that nudges up the ceiling on California’s minimum wage came in direct conflict with the floor on the state’s salary eligibility guidelines for childcare subsidy.
Mary Ignatius, an organizer with Parent Voices, a parent-led organization fighting to make quality childcare accessible and affordable in California, explains:
I think for some folks, there was the assumption that if you make better wages, you can have better childcare. But this was only if you didn’t take into account that a parent getting a $0.50 per hour raise meant she could lose $1,500 to $2,000 worth of childcare subsidies monthly; it doesn’t add up. We already knew from our members that many had turned down raises or cut their hours due to the faulty income guidelines for access to the benefit of childcare.
This is where the power and necessity of having a multi-racial, multi-issue network driven by low-income families came into play. Ignatius describes how members of the Bay Area Equal Voice Coalition (BAEVC) worked together to break through the impasse of competing policy objectives:
[The process] wasn’t ever an either-or, but a way for us to educate one another. The childcare policy conversation had been led for decades by middle- and upper-class white women who didn’t have a racial and economic justice lens, so we had to stress the importance of fighting for a living wage in a way that didn’t hurt parents or childcare workers. Then we had to help the folks working for a higher minimum wage understand the implications on the entire family budget and [what] families [needed] to survive. [Making progress] doesn’t mean we have to oppose one another. It just means we have to be doing both at the same time.