King’s Final Battle

In his last years, Martin Luther King Jr. broadened his vision to address the plight of all the poor—black, white and Hispanic.

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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shifted his focus in the dwindling years of his life to an audacious, but achievable goal: ending poverty in the United States.

In his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King argued that the United States must change its attitude and approach toward the treatment of its poor citizens. He reasoned that since poverty knew no racial boundaries, he couldn’t limit his call for congressional action to assist only black Americans.

“In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out,” King wrote in 1967. “There are twice as many white poor as [black] poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and [black] alike.”

This was a radical—and unpopular—change for the preacher who is best-known for pushing voting, employment, housing and other civil rights for black Americans. At this point in his career, during what would become the final months of his life, he was widening his field of vision to seek an end to poverty among all Americans.

As we pause to celebrate this year’s national holiday in memory of King’s 81st birthday, it’s appropriate to recall the relevance of his final struggle to the contemporary fight toward ending poverty.

The most recent poverty data for 2008 reveal an America where nearly 40 million people (13.2 percent) live in poverty, while nearly 1 in 3 Americans (31.9 percent) struggles to make ends meet at twice the poverty level. Significant racial disparities persist in the data. While the number of whites in poverty was 8.6 percent, 24.7 percent of blacks and 23.2 of Hispanics lived in poverty in 2008. The data are expected to be significantly worse for 2009, a year when rising unemployment pushed many families closer to the brink.

Racial disparities also continue to separate black and Latino Americans from white Americans. For example, with unemployment rates and wages—two basic indicators to measure decent work—there remain entrenched racial disparities. In December 2009, the unemployment rate for white men over 20 was 9.8 percent, but for black men over 20 it’s nearly double at 16.9 percent. Bureau of Labor Statistic figures for 2008 report the median usual weekly earning for full-time wage and salary workers was $742 for white Americans, but only $589 for African Americans and even lower at $529 for Latinos.

These numbers represent an affront not only to our moral sensibilities, but also to our economic self-interest and national competitiveness. In 2007, the Center for American Progress released a paper showing that child poverty alone costs the United States $500 billion a year in lost productivity, higher health costs and expenditures in the criminal justice system. We need national leadership from our government to systemically tackle this growing problem.

Nearly 40 years ago, King understood that previous national efforts to end poverty were stymied by a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem’s scope. King understood why:

While none of these remedies [housing assistance, improved educational facilities, income assistance] in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at a similar rate of development. Housing measures have fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy. Educational reforms have been even more sluggish and entangled in bureaucratic stalling and economy-dominated decisions. Family assistance stagnated in neglect and then suddenly was discovered to be the central issue on the basis of hasty and superficial studies. At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

King’s observations hold true more than 40 years after his death. This is the year to change that. During the campaign, candidate Obama embraced the goal of cutting poverty in half in 10 years. The Half in Ten Campaign is advocating for that commitment to be translated into a government-wide target that can break down silos across government agencies, engage the private sector and the public, and animate cross-cutting solutions and enhanced coordination.

We can start by ensuring that job-creation proposals lift up the hardest-hit communities. The last economic recovery holds the distinct dishonor of being the first on record where poverty rates rose and median income fell despite rising profits and productivity. To avoid a repeat performance, Congress must take three key steps to ensure that low-income, minority and other traditionally vulnerable communities have the opportunity to participate in economic recovery.