by Jack Jenkins
WASHINGTON (RNS) Members of the Poor People’s campaign, a faith-led anti-poverty initiative, expressed frustration after meeting with Sen. Joe Manchin on Thursday (Feb. 18), arguing the West Virginia Democrat’s suggestion of including an $11 minimum wage in a forthcoming pandemic relief bill is inadequate.
The Rev. William Barber, a co-chair of the campaign who also delivered the sermon at President Joe Biden’s inaugural prayer service, said Manchin’s proposal falls far short of the $15 minimum wage he and others have long advocated for, and the pastor vowed to stage demonstrations outside Manchin’s office next week.
“We’re not interested in compromise — $15 is a compromise,” Barber said during a call with reporters. “What (Manchin) was suggesting would just further keep people in poverty.”
The meeting, which came at the invitation of Manchin, revolved around a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill spearheaded by Biden that has sparked controversy among Democrats. Liberal-leaning lawmakers and activists — including many faith-based advocates — have pushed to include a provision that would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 by 2025.
Biden, for his part, expressed support for a $15 minimum wage when speaking at multipleevents hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign during his presidential campaign. He once declared at a 2019 forum organized by the group: “We have to raise the minimum wage to a minimum $15 an hour — it’s disgraceful that someone works 40 hours a week and lives in poverty.”
But moderate Democrats — such as Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — have expressed resistance to the idea, and Biden indicated during a town hall on Tuesday evening that he’s open to extending the phase-in process to a $15 minimum wage beyond five years.
A recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the plan would cost 1.4 million jobs and increase the deficit by $54 billion over 10 years but would also raise incomes for 17 million and lift an estimated 900,000 people out of poverty.
Also at this week’s meeting with Manchin were West Virginians such as Pam Garrison, a Fayette County resident who said she has worked for minimum wage her entire life.
“The minimum wage has never been sufficient to feed my family and to survive on,” she said. “This is supposed to be a rescue package. Well, you can’t take the biggest part of the rescue out.”
Garrison was echoed by fellow West Virginia resident Jean Evansmore, who appealed to Manchin on religious grounds.
“We are trying to get (Manchin) to live up to what he was told when he was a kid: If you have all these blessings, then you can share your blessings,” she said.
She added: “I live in the Bible Belt — West Virginia — and yet you talk that you don’t want to miss church. … You talk it, but you don’t act.”
Brianna Griffith, a bartender who lost her house during the pandemic and has since moved in with her grandmother, said she thought Manchin was “copping out” by only offering an $11 wage.
Sam Runyon, Manchin’s communications director, told Religion News Service the senator “appreciated the opportunity to meet with Bishop Barber and members of the Poor People’s Campaign,” adding that “having grown up in the small coal-mining town of Farmington, Senator Manchin understands the challenges facing working West Virginians and small business owners.”
Barber said Manchin brought up his own experience with poverty during the meeting but was met with pushback.
“We don’t believe in using our story (that) we made it though poverty as a suggestion that people ought to keep struggling in unjust situations,” Barber said. “I said back to (Manchin): ‘That doesn’t mean it was right. It doesn’t mean that’s what should have been. That’s more of a reason now … to change the situation.”
Barber said he plans to be in West Virginia next Monday, where members of the Poor People’s Campaign are slated to protest alongside labor unions and other groups outside Manchin’s office to call for a $15 minimum wage. Demonstrators will also gather in Arizona, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, California, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C.