Late last year, people in tiny Whiteville, N.C., were recruited to weekly meetings with a group they'd never heard of. They got cold calls, flyers in the mail and in-person pitches at the local Pecan Harvest Festival. Did they want to come talk about the economy with Patriotic Millionaires?

That was intriguing enough to some.

"My first thought of it was, really? They care about Columbus County? Cause nobody cares about Columbus County like that," says April Thomas, who has three children and works at a vape and tobacco shop.

Others showed up for the freebies: door prizes, dinner and $50.

Over a month of meetings, dozens of residents got a crash course on inequality and learned why this group of rich people wants to pay higher taxes and raise the minimum wage.

The nonprofit Patriotic Millionaires has lobbied Congress to make changes for more than a decade. Its members see inequality as a danger — they worry big money is corrupting politics and driving civil unrest. But they haven't had much success. President Donald Trump's 2017 tax cuts largely benefited the wealthy, and even when Democrats controlled the Senate in 2021, they failed to pass a bill to raise the minimum wage.

"We hit a wall," says Erica Payne, the group's founder. "We have hammered them on both sides of the aisle for 12 years, OK. It's time to go to the people who hand them their power."

Enter Whiteville, population less than 5,000. It's in a swing state where the minimum wage is still $7.25 an hour, the same as the federal rate, which hasn't been raised since 2009. The state has even barred cities from boosting their own minimums.

Payne notes that low-wage workers make up more than 40% of the labor force. "They are the most powerful people in the United States of America, if only they realized it," she says.

Meetings in Whiteville started up again this spring. It's the pilot for an expanding push to attract more people to the cause. Patriotic Millionaires will hold gatherings soon in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and recently offered some online.

Free dinner with a crash course on widening inequality

One afternoon in May, nearly 60 Whiteville residents trickle in to a conference room gussied up in red, white and blue. At the door there are introductions for newcomers and hugs for some regulars. This county voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in 2020, but those who show up are Republicans, Democrats and independents. They are Black and white, old and young, from seniors with walkers to people with toddlers on laps.

"Welcome everybody for coming. Will all the men remove their hats please," says local resident Thomas Young. Heads bow as he offers a blessing, and then people line up for the buffet dinner.

Some people who attended meetings last year are back and want to use this latest round to strategize next moves. But for new recruits, once everyone's seated with a plate of chicken and green beans, Patriotic Millionaires founder Payne opens her PowerPoint to make her case.

"So 71% of Americans think the economy is rigged against them," she says, standing before a big screen. "We've got news for them, they're right."

Payne clicks through charts and graphs that she says explain the frustration many in this room are feeling. Upward mobility? It's down. CEO pay? It's gone way up, from 20 times worker pay in the 1960s to, on average, hundreds times more today. And yet, in some years major corporations essentially paid no taxes.

In another graph, a squiggly line for worker productivity climbs and climbs over recent decades, while the line for wages looks almost flat.

"Where do you think all that extra productivity, the profits from all that productivity, is going?" Payne asks. There's a murmur of responses. "That's exactly right," she says. "It's going straight into the pockets of the rich."

Soon after, she introduces one of those rich people.

Pierre Hollis is a quiet man with a goatee, one of the millionaires who gives the group its name. He lives in Virginia and has driven down here for every one of these meetings.

Hollis says Whiteville reminds him of the "very poor town" in Arizona where he grew up. "But back then there was a chance of escaping the economic situation you were born into," he says. "These days, that chance of escaping ... is about zero."

In an interview before the meeting, Hollis says, "It's obscene what the very wealthy people in this country get away with," and cites himself as a prime example. He made his fortune in stocks, and taxes on that income are far lower than they are for wages earned by actually working. Hollis thinks few people know about such loopholes, "and if they knew they would be outraged."

All these economic changes have played out so slowly that people who struggle "assign blame on some level to themselves," says Cat Hadley, who directs Patriotic Millionaires' state programs. She says it's important to step back and show the larger forces at work. "It doesn't matter who's in charge," she says. "The rich people keep on getting richer and everybody else stays the same."

"It opened up my eyes to ... things that I didn't know"

Over chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant in town, several locals say they were cautious when these meetings began.

"I am fairly conservative, have been most of my life, and so I had some preconceived notions about what I thought was going on," says Jamie Insley, a retired nurse. "I've been shown quite a lot of difference."

For one thing, he'd never considered that higher wages might benefit some businesses, since customers would have more to spend. And he had no idea how large the U.S. wealth gap has grown in recent decades. Insley gets both Social Security and veterans benefits and says he's doing fine financially. But he worries for his children because it seems harder to make a good living than when he was young.

For April Thomas, what she found most striking was MIT's estimate for the local "living wage" for a single mother of three, like her: $53 an hour, which feels impossible.

She was hired on at the vape shop at $7.25. "[Her boss] still tries to start people at that wage, but he has trouble because a lot of people are like, 'I can't work for that.' "

Thomas recently got a bump to $10 an hour and also found another job at $15 working overnights in a group home. But it's still a financial stretch, especially with child care when she can find it. Her car's on its last legs and she can't afford another one.

"Even though I'm starting this new job, I'm not letting my old job go," she says. "I'm still working it on the days that I can because this is hard. It really is."

Brittany McMillian is also a single mom and admits the main draw at first was the free dinner. But all the information about tax loopholes and pay gaps "opened up my eyes to a lot of things that I didn't know," she says. "I want to change it for my kids and future grandkids."

McMillian has been recruiting friends and family and says she would love to get a group big enough to take a bus to Washington, D.C. "I feel like that — that would be amazing," she says.

Even economists who admire the cause are skeptical about the odds for success

As a senior fellow with the nonpartisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, Steve Rosenthal spends a lot of time dispelling misperceptions about the tax code. Compared with other rich nations, he says, U.S. spending is about average. But despite decades of rhetoric about how high taxes are, the U.S. brings in a significantly smaller share of tax revenue than those countries. And Rosenthal says a smaller part of it comes from wealthy people and corporations.

"I'm all for educating more people," he says about Patriotic Millionaires' grassroots push. Still, he's skeptical about the odds of success. "I have no idea what the payoff is here."

Rosenthal credits President Biden and many congressional Democrats for trying to raise taxes on the wealthy. Perhaps, he says, energized voters might elect more Democrats in swing states. But he's doubtful grassroots lobbying can get today's Republicans to break their "rigid ideology" of no new taxes.

"The Republicans have become more and more doctrinaire," he says, "and there's an infrastructure to discipline Republicans that step out of line."

It means that fiscal conservatives in the party — like Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who both reversed themselves and raised taxes — "are largely extinct now," he says.

Economist Betsey Stevenson at the University of Michigan says Americans also tend to underestimate how much inequality there is in the U.S. But when it comes to lobbying on the minimum wage, there's a reason Congress hasn't raised it.

"Because the minimum wage has been raised all across the country at the state and local level," she says. "And so it's just not as much of a priority because it won't affect as many people as it would have 10 years ago." Even in the 20 states that have not raised the minimum, like North Carolina, the tight labor market has pushed wages up some.

Even so, Stevenson says there is strong public support for raising the minimum wage. But — another hurdle — lower-income Americans are far less likely to vote. She says they're hit disproportionately by voting restrictions and that casting a ballot can come at a cost.

"For some of us, giving up a day's worth of work to stand in a line to vote could mean not being able to pay your rent, or not eat," Stevenson says.

The idea is to convince people their voice matters

The last part of the Wednesday supper meeting is devoted to helping people prepare to speak out. At a prompt, attendees pair up and ask each other to talk about their lives. A few stand to share stories of hardship, to warm applause. Then there are several rounds of role-play on how to talk to a lawmaker.

In future meetings they'll get training for how to be an effective activist, start a petition on raising wages and organize a lobby day to the state Capitol.

They also want to call on the U.S. congressman whose district includes Whiteville at some point.

In a wrap-up discussion, some first-time attendees say what they've learned has helped them see their own struggles differently. One man says there should be a high school class to teach kids about taxes. Darlene McCollum is one of several who say they'll be back for more sessions.

"I would love to do something so when my youngest child gets out there in the workforce," she says, "he won't have to struggle like I have."

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