Poverty will be the focus of the Motherlode Martin Luther King Jr. Committee’s 23rd annual celebration of the civil rights leader’s birthday later this month.

The free event scheduled for 2 p.m., Jan. 20, in the Sonora High School auditorium, will have a slightly different format this year. As opposed to a keynote speaker, there will be a panel of local people who deal with poverty in the community firsthand through their work.

“We’re hoping that people will get a better understanding of why poverty exists here,” said Pat Cervelli, a member of the committee.

One of the reasons the committee chose the topic is because when King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, he was in the midst of organizing the Poor People’s Campaign with the hope of bringing economic justice to people of all faiths and ethnicities across the United States.

Another reason is because more than 13,000 people in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties combined are living below the poverty line, according to estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau in December.

The bureau estimated that 13.6 percent of the less than 54,000 people in Tuolumne County and 12.8 percent of the roughly 45,000 people in Calaveras County earned an income in 2017 that was below the poverty threshold.

According to the bureau, the poverty threshold is about $12,500 for single people, $15,900 for households with two people, and $25,100 for families of four.

While the percentage of people in poverty was slightly lower than both the U.S. and California as a whole, Tuolumne County had a sharply higher rate of poverty among single mothers with children under 5 years old.

The poverty rate of single mothers with children under 5 years old was nearly 55 percent, compared to about 44 percent across the U.S. and 37 percent statewide.

Tuolumne and Calaveras counties also each have median household incomes that are roughly 20 percent lower than the state as a whole, according to the bureau, though Cervelli said she believes it would be even lower if not for a number of wealthy people in the area.

“Some of us have worked in social services and see poverty from generation to generation,” Cervelli said. “People are just unable to climb out of it.”

The panel of speakers at the event will be Margie Bulkin, Irvin Jim, Mark Dyken, and Steve Wilensky.

Bulkin is the recently retired Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools who now serves on the Board of Trustees for the Yosemite Community College School District.

Jim is chairman of the Hung A Lel Ti Woodfords Washoe Community Council, a tribe based in Markleeville.

Dyken is director of the Jamestown Family Resource Center, which says that 20 percent of students in the Jamestown School District fall under the definition of being homeless.

Wilensky is a former Calaveras County supervisor and chairman of the Calaveras Health Impact Product Solutions, a nonprofit organization that does projects to sustain the health of forests.

“Poverty is here, and we want people to know it’s here,” Cervelli said. “We don’t have a solution, but believe that people should start talking about it.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.