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Groups Call For Enactment Of State And Federal 'Moral Agenda'

Alanna Elder
Pa. Poor People's Campaign co-chair Nijimie Dzurinko speaks to the group's policy demands outside the state capitol building in Harrisburg.

As a follow-up to its voter engagement work last year, advocates with the Poor People’s Campaign and other groups presented a list of policy items to lawmakers in 30 states including Pennsylvania.

The demands are part of what the campaign calls a “moral agenda” and include a sweep of priorities involving economic, racial, and environmental justice.

At the state level, the groups addressed a letter to General Assembly leadership with nine policy priorities. Most, like relief from bus fares and a call to reinstate adult dental benefits to Medicaid in Pennsylvania, address specific programs.

Tammy Rojas of Put People First PA says she was doing outreach at a mobile dentists’ office when she was diagnosed with gum disease. She said it could increase her risk of other health problems, but she can’t use Medicaid to pay for the frequent cleaning she needs.

“Let’s be real: dental care is health care,” she said.

Other agenda items assert broader intentions, like “end[ing] family separation due to poverty, racism, or immigration status.”

The platform coincides with 14 national demands targeting the early days of the new Congress and the Biden administration.

At the top of that list is COVID relief. Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign co-chair Nijme Dzurinko cheered the recent passage of the American Rescue Plan, which she said “does make some concrete improvements, especially over the next 12 months, in the lives of the poor and dispossessed working class in Pennsylvania.”

“That is an achievement of this movement,” she said.

Other top agenda items include a $15 federal minimum wage and changes to the way the government measures poverty. In its materials, the campaign frequently uses the number 140 million to describe people in the United States whose income is below 200% of the poverty line.

“[The demands] come out of the lives, struggles, agency, and insights of the 140 million and our moral, economic and legal allies,” Dzurinko said. “They embody a politics of love, justice, and truth that can defeat the politics of death, heal the nation, and bring us down the path toward genuine democracy.”

Dzurinko said the Poor People’s campaign did something unique last year in not endorsing any candidates but talking to more than two million poor and low-income voters about the platform.

“I want everyone here to appreciate the work that we collectively did in the lead-up to this election. This is also why the right to vote is now under attack,” she said.

At one point this year, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that the Commonwealth had more proposed measures to limit voting than any state except Arizona. More recently, the think tank was watching about nine bills intended to expand voting access and about eight bills and resolutions aimed at restricting it, including a proposal to limit mail-in voting.

The letter to top state lawmakers did not explicitly mention voting rights, but at a small gathering outside the state capitol, Dzurinko called for changes like automatic voter registration, allowing formerly and currently incarcerated people to vote, and making election day a holiday.

The national Poor People’s Campaign held a call after groups “delivered” the demands to their state legislatures. In Pennsylvania the in-person delivery was symbolic, since the capitol building is closed to the public.