TOPEKA — Poverty in Kansas might look different from how it appears in other states, according to Mary Jane Shanklin, a member of National Nurses United who advocates for the needs of rural Kansans.
Shanklin said poor people in rural Kansas are often ignored because they might not look like the mainstream definition of poverty.
“There’s plenty of poor people in southeast Kansas, you just don’t hear from them much. And you don’t see them much because they’re tucked away on farms,” Shanklin said. “It’s kind of normal for people to not talk about their problems so much here, until the farm is in foreclosure or are deeply depressed.”
Shanklin has experienced this firsthand. Raised in rural poverty in West Virginia, she worked in New Mexico and Nevada, among other places, before settling in Kansas. Like those other places, the Sunflower State has a growing issue with food insecurity and access to health care, she said.
Shanklin is among the Kansans involved with the Poor People’s Campaign, a revival of the 1968 movement by the same name aimed at uplifting poor and at-risk communities across the country. In mid-December, Shanklin helped represent Kansas and rural America during the campaign’s first meeting with president-elect Joe Biden’s transition team.
More than 8 million people slipped into poverty nationwide during the pandemic, according to an October study from Columbia University. Shanklin said those numbers are reflected in Kansas, where struggles with food insecurity and access to health care were exacerbated over the past months.
She said she was honored to bring this growing dilemma to light, especially as a nurse.
“It’s wonderful to represent all of the nurses who’ve been suffering through this pandemic, since March, working and working and seeing things that nobody should see on a regular basis, every single day,” Shanklin said.
Of 14 policy points the Poor People’s Campaign presented, the first two dealt explicitly with health care. The first and primary policy goal is comprehensive and just COVID-19 relief. The second is guaranteed quality health care for all.
“You have people that don’t go to the doctor either because there’s no one around or no hospital or because they can’t afford insurance or a medical bill. That’s what rural poverty looks like to me,” Shanklin said.
“For Kansas, we need to expand Medicaid. We needed to six years ago, and we didn’t get it done yet,” she said.
She also touted the third policy point, calling for the federal minimum wage to be raised to $15 per hour. She said this would infuse needed funds into rural economies.
Shanklin and representatives from several states were joined by Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, the co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign, along with several legal and policy experts during the meeting. Members of Biden’s transition team were led by Susan Rice, who was recently tapped to lead the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Beyond health care and increased minimum wage, they are calling for the protection of voting rights, quality public education for all and protection of the rights of Indigenous people.
“People are mourning, and they’re miserable because of poverty and low wealth and racism and ecological devastation, denial of health care,” Barber said. “We said to Biden, ‘If you address that mourning — if your policies address where people are crying — that’s how the nation is healed.’”
Barber said this was the first of what he hopes will be many fruitful meetings with the Biden administration. One ask was a roundtable at the White House between poor people and communities most impacted by unjust policies and policy leaders.
“In this pandemic, we have seen that these parents, these grandparents, these caregivers, these health care workers, the teachers and so many others that hold up our economy and society, need to then be at the center of our politics,” said Theoharis.