This Saturday, a bold and powerful crowd will march in Washington, DC, to decry a moral, economic, and political crisis in the United States: a crisis of inequality.
In a country with so much wealth, there is no reason that 38.5 million children should be living in poverty or in low-income households that are just one emergency away from impoverishment. That’s why thousands of poor people, low-wage workers, and their allies will be marching this Saturday in an event organized by the Poor People’s Campaign. This is the first time the Poor People’s Campaign has organized an in-person march in the capital, taking inspiration from the original campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Saturday’s march will send a strong message to legislators that the status quo in the United States is perpetuating poverty, exploitation, and violence. Instead of investing in a system that is killing people, we must use this country’s abundant resources to meet people’s needs.
Right now, there is an opportunity to change the status quo. In the halls of Congress, lawmakers are currently deciding how to spend taxpayer money. They have just kicked off the annual process of passing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a massive bill that allocates over $800 billion — and counting — to the Pentagon. Year after year, Congress pours more money into the Pentagon’s coffers, rarely questioning whether this endless, unaccountable spending on weapons and war provides the safety, security, and prosperity people need.
The reality is that unchecked militarism breeds inequality and injustice and undermines funding for essential services. This disproportionately impacts poor and low-income people and too often compounds the historical oppression of Black, brown, and Indigenous communities. It’s time to cut the enormous Pentagon budget and redirect some of its plentiful resources into securing a decent, dignified life for everyone in this country.
BLAMING THE BLAMELESS
Spending on the military, weapons, and war has ballooned in the past two decades. The president’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget has already proposed $30 billion more for the Pentagon than last year — a whopping $813 billion in total that Congress may increase by further billions before the year is out, against the wishes of the majority of people. Over the next ten years, the United States is set to spend at least $7.5 trillion at the Pentagon. Meanwhile, the ten-year, roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better Act — which included transformative policies tackling child poverty, climate change, and racial inequities — has not been passed because key senators consider it too costly.
Frequently, poor and low-income people are unfairly blamed for “draining the economy” by using public resources. Yet, rarely does anyone ask, “but how will we pay for it?” when it comes to the exorbitant Pentagon budget. In fact, the average taxpayer pays $2,000 per year in taxes to the Pentagon alone, approximately $900 of which goes straight to weapons contractors. In comparison, the average taxpayer only contributes $37 to welfare, $62 to school lunch programs, and less than $8 to homeless assistance programs annually.
The numbers don’t lie. They show that our government’s priority is funding the Pentagon over ending poverty. And this choice is influenced by the people who profit the most from exploiting poor and low-income folks — including those who profit off of endless warmaking.
HOW WAR WORSENS INEQUALITY
Most people in the United States do not want to see their country forever at war. However, big corporate interests are working behind the scenes to ensure the United States never reins in its massive military footprint. In 2020, the five biggest weapons and defense contractors — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman — earned over $150 billion in contracts from the Pentagon. To guarantee that the contracts keep coming, these companies employ on average 700 lobbyists per year — more than one per every member of Congress — to lobby federal lawmakers to spend even more at the Pentagon.
The numbers show that our government’s priority is funding the Pentagon over ending poverty. And this choice is influenced by the people who profit off of endless warmaking.
Perhaps more perverse, many of these companies also fund foreign policy think tanks in Washington, DC, organizations that provide research to policymakers. It’s not shocking, then, that many of these think tanks fearmonger about security threats from other countries and release reports calling for more funding for war — which in turn means more cash flow back to the war industry. It’s important to note that most servicemembers and workers for these weapons companies are not reaping the benefits. Instead, top executives are getting rich off their backs, earning $276.5 million in 2020 alone, with Lockheed Martin’s CEO earning the highest individual salary at $23.3 million. They celebrate new wars and weapons sales as a good business opportunity, disregarding how this military adventurism harms many internationally and domestically.
Abroad, failed US wars, interventions, and economic sanctions have killed, hurt, and displaced millions of predominantly Black, brown, and Indigenous people. The post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, and Iraq have directly killed approximately 387,000 civilians, not including thousands more who have died from the ripple effects of war, such as famine and disease. Broad sanctions on countries including Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria have contributed to poverty and immense suffering for everyday people, especially children. At home, this militarism has disproportionately harmed poor, racialized, and Indigenous communities — from weapons factory workers forced to work in unsafe conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic to veterans who lack adequate care and economic opportunities to people suffering from health conditions linked to weapons testing and military activity.
Endless spending on militarism also exacerbates inequality in a less obvious way: by accelerating climate change. With its ever-expanding military footprint — military bases around the globe and ongoing “counterterrorism” operations in at least 85 countries — the Department of Defense is the biggest institutional emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world. It even emits more than entire countries, including some rich, industrialized countries such as Portugal and Denmark.
Climate change increases extreme weather events like hurricanes and droughts, hurting people living in rural areas and poor people who have far fewer resources to recover. The fossil fuel and resource extraction needed to fuel militarism have also destroyed the land and well-being of many Indigenous communities, which have the highest poverty rate in the United States.
Moreover, military activities have also caused horrible health conditions, which are especially debilitating for people without health insurance. Contaminated water sources near at least 126 US military sites have put thousands of people at higher risk for cancer, childhood developmental delays, and other severe health problems. Nearly 80 years of nuclear weapons testing has also had devastating health impacts on uranium workers and people living “downwind” of nuclear sites, exposed to radioactive fallout on crops and livestock. Even decades after some of these nuclear tests were conducted, the land and water in some communities remain unsuitable for agriculture or fishing. For far too long, we have used our resources to prioritize militarism, making so many less safe.
MARCHING TO TURN THE TIDES
The climate crisis, pandemics, corruption, and inequality are some of our biggest security threats. But we cannot truly address them if we don’t question our national addiction to war and the underlying, misguided belief that throwing more money at the Pentagon will keep us safe. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Pentagon has no role in providing defense, but we can still keep the largest military in the world and have plenty of resources to spare.
With this year’s NDAA process underway, Congress can choose to cut the massive Pentagon budget. It can choose to invest in public education, green jobs and infrastructure, veterans’ care, and health care. But for lawmakers to summon the political will to do so, we must pressure them to stop pandering to corporate greed. That means turning out for the march this Saturday, Jun. 18, and supporting the demands of low-income folks to create a system that divests from violence and invests in true human needs.
This is a real path to security for the 43% of people in the United States who are poor or low-wage workers — including 52% of children.
Amisha Parikh-Friese is the Senior Policy Associate at Win Without War. She has a background in grassroots human rights advocacy, government ethics, and peacebuilding.