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Joining the Poor People's Campaign to Fight Ecological Devastation

Joining the Poor People's Campaign to Fight Ecological Devastation

Woman carrying sign that reads "Ecological Devastation is Immoral"

This week's theme for the Poor People's Campaign is "The Right to Health and a Healthy Planet: Ecological Devastation and Health Care." While healthcare, the environment, and poverty might at first seem like a disparate set of themes, the three are inextricably linked.

Consider the issue of pollution. Poor people are disproportionately more likely to live near polluted areas. In South Carolina, for example, 57% of South Carolinians below the poverty line live in the same census tract as a superfund site. Similar disparities can be found nation-wide, from Michigan to California. You can explore these trends in your own community with EPA mapping tools. When industry forces and poverty set people to live on dangerous soil, drink toxic water, and breath hazardous air, already vulnerable individuals suffer the health consequences. Individuals living in Chicago's "Toxic Donut," an area surrounding a large federal housing project, had significantly higher rates of cancer than their counterparts in the north of the city. These health impacts are devastating on their own, but are all the more devastating when there is not accessible healthcare to treat the health impacts that arise. Attacks on our healthcare system and weakened environmental protections form a one-two punch of poisoning the poor, then giving them no treatment.

Climate change also shows the link between poverty, public health, and the state of our planet. Perhaps most visible is the continued devastation in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria. In the wake of Maria, Puerto Rico experienced a devastating loss of life and destruction of critical island infrastructure. In part due to poverty, the island is still struggling, while more wealthy mainland communities have been able to rebuild or had more robust infrastructure that could weather the storm. A large part of what made the hurricane so deadly was how it disrupted critical medical infrastructure, with some estimates suggesting that one third of the deaths related to the storm occurred because of disruption to medical services. We see here how wealth, lack of robust and accessible healthcare, and a changing climate which intensifies hurricanes like Maria can come together with deadly consequences. Climate change is also likely to place disproportionate burdens on the poor by changing where food can be grown, displacing individuals because of extreme weather and sea level rise, and causing drought.

Climate change is also causing a slew of negative health effects, ranging from heat stroke, to increasing insect-borne diseases, to increasing surface level ozone and respiratory issues. Like with issues of pollution, climate change kicks the poor while they are down by both creating negative health effects, and then not properly treating those health effects due to our broken healthcare system.

Luckily, the solutions to climate change, healthcare, and poverty also all complement each other. Improving efficiency in homes’ lighting, insulation, and electricity usage can save low income families money on their utilities, and residential solar has the potential to dramatically lower energy costs. Carbon pricing schemes like the ones currently being advocated for in Washington DC and Washington State can be great ways to invest in infrastructure for low income and frontline communities.

As we sing together at the Poor People’s Campaign, “everybody’s got a right to live.” To ensure that right, it is critical to fight against poverty, for access to affordable healthcare, and for a more sustainable relationship with our planet, because the three are all intricately interconnected.

To learn more about the Poor People's Campaign and join the next action with your Reform Jewish community, visit www.rac.org/poorpeoplescampaign

Jonah Baskin is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. A native of Denver, he recently graduated with honors from the University of Chicago with degrees in public policy and environmental studies. Jonah served as president of the university’s Jewish Students’ Association and as the social justice chair on the Hillel board.

Jonah Baskin

Published: 6/06/2018