Those with money shouldn’t be trusted. Middle class people, like myself, need to stop buying into the allure of wealth. Over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of interacting with community organizers from Elkhart, Indiana, the city 15 minutes from my college in Goshen. Folks in Elkhart have started the People’s History of Elkhart, a group who remembers and looks to uphold the community tradition of organizing for social justice in this RV manufacturing town. The group is part of a nation-wide effort for a New Poor People’s Campaign. Over the summer, people traveled from city to city, including Elkhart, figuring out what working class people’s issues are and what we can do together to continue Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.
Elkhart has a strong history of people organizing for the rights of poor folks in this community. This kind of local, community focused organizing is so important. It can reach people in ways national organizations can’t. It’s really based around on-the-ground needs in a particular place. I had the opportunity to do a bit of research about Elkhart’s Welfare Rights Organization that formed in 1974. Welfare recipients, primarily African American women, started this organization in an effort to address their most pressing needs, including housing, healthcare, and racism. One of the most pressing issues was welfare recipients’ mistreatment by the Township Trustees. Through underground tips from case workers, the group successfully sued the Indiana Welfare Department. The WRO produced a monthly newsletter letting people know about new laws and various ways that the Welfare Department might try to break the law, including things like demanding that recipients be sterilized before qualifying for welfare. The group even connected to other groups in the state and in Detroit, whose Welfare Rights Organization is still going strong after 50 years.
Organizing is still necessary in this community. Elkhart, Indiana was labeled the “white, hot epicenter of the economic meltdown” in 2008 by the New York Times. Our unemployment rates skyrocketed to the 3rd highest in the nation at around 18%. A major chunk of the population works for the RV industry in factories, and RV sales are highly dependent on wealthier people having disposable income to purchase them. Elkhart unemployment rates sharply increase or decrease based on slight changes in gas prices and other factors completely out of our control. Even when unemployment is low, real wages have actually decreased making it harder and harder to get by with a working class job. People all over the country, but especially manufacturing cities in the Midwest, have experienced similar trends.
We’re standing on the shoulders of the women who formed the Welfare Rights Organization in Elkhart, and we’re standing on the shoulders of King. I’m standing on the shoulders of my mentors who’ve dedicated their lives to organizing around community needs in Elkhart.
I need to ask myself, what is my role in this movement? I’m not working class. I grew up in a solidly middle class family, I’m white, cis. It’s pretty damn easy to pretend I don’t have a stake in this whole Poor People's’ Campaign thing. I don’t need to relate to it if I don’t want to or don’t have the energy for it. I grew up in a Mennonite context where you politely assumed that everyone around you was well off. You didn’t talk about your difficulties. Maybe some of you can relate. But I think there are fundamental ways that I do fit into this movement. I am connected. We absolutely need to talk about our difficulties. I don’t want to pretend that I fully understand the experiences of working class people, or the incredible hardship people in poverty who experience homelessness or not having food go through. But I think that as middle class folks, we need to realize how the system is actually hurting us too. We aren’t free from financial difficulties or the frustration of getting screwed over by the system, and by pretending that we are, we only strengthen the damaging system that puts profits over people.
How can I connect to this movement? Two months ago, I started the process of applying for health care through the Affordable Care Act, and the website told me I qualified for Medicare, but I didn’t get a letter for four weeks which said I was missing this or that document. I didn’t feel like I could talk about it or ask for help from people who might know because I was ashamed of feeling like I messed up. Not only did I need government aid, I was stupid to boot, right? And now, who knows what will be happening with Obamacare. I’m thousands of dollars in debt from college, as are plenty of my friends. I work in food service for a server’s wage, unsure of how much money I’ll walk away with each shift, hoping it’s enough for rent. During the recession, my family found out that my grandpa’s house and farm was being foreclosed on, a reality that he kept hidden from the family until the last possible moment because of a feeling of shame or failure.
I’m not completely free from fears of financial failure, and I shouldn’t lie to myself that I am. Middle class people cannot keep aligning ourselves with the hope that we might feel a trickle down from the wealthy. We’re being blinded by the false hope of the American Dream--the idea that if we just work hard enough, we’ll eventually be rich. We’re tricked ourselves into allying with the wealthy by shouldering upper class respectability politics. We’re incentivized by the kind of moral superiority we’re told we have over the poor, even though we were probably born into wealth. We fail to realize that the system was not built for us, either. It was built for the wealthiest people and corporations who have little incentive to make decisions that would risk their financial status.
Instead, middle class people need to start aligning ourselves with working class people and needs. We gain so much more if we work together as a community to make sure everyone’s needs are met and nobody is forgotten. This is the kind of safety net that I want, not one that is based on hoping that I become wealthy against the odds and screw everyone else who doesn’t. I want a community based on the premise of abundance—that we do have enough and we don’t need to destroy the earth and water to have a community. I want a community based on relationships which strive to include people of every race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity. There are so many areas where everyone can come together to support each other and organize for our rights. And I think the New Poor People’s Campaign has the great potential to do that. The Black women who formed the Elkhart Welfare Rights Organization blazed a path for us and created a concept of community for people in Elkhart to live into. Find out the history of class organizing in your own community and meet with those working for social change today. Join up. It’s time for middle class people to stop taking upperclass bribes and live into a new vision of community.