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.
Congress must invest in direct job creation that addresses long-neglected needs in communities. There is an immense need for weatherization and health care workers; there are neighborhoods where deteriorating infrastructure calls for upgrades and new construction. By funding direct jobs in these and other areas, investing in national service programs, and resourcing summer jobs programs, Congress can put people directly back to work while simultaneously addressing unmet needs among populations suffering the most in this recession.
Any sound strategy to rebuild the economy will recognize that our moral inclinations happen to gel with our economic goals. Economists across the ideological spectrum point out that helping the most vulnerable workers and families through food stamps, extensions of unemployment and COBRA health benefits, and refundable tax credits drives the kind of economic demand that keeps small businesses humming and ripples throughout the economy.
Also, aid to states and localities makes common sense as a strategy to prevent further job losses and service cuts. If Congress fails to act, 900,000 more workers will lose their livelihood and the services that sustain Main Street America will see further cuts.
Late in 1967, King directed the SCLC to take the civil rights movement on yet another march on Washington, D.C. But unlike the march four years earlier that was the setting for his memorable “I Have A Dream” speech, King planned to deliver a speech that would speak to the “waves of the nation’s poor and disinherited” and to lead groups of poor people of all races in the spring of 1968 to demand “at least jobs or income for all.”
He never led that march, nor delivered a singular defining speech on poverty. His assassination in 1968 left that unfulfilled. Still, King left writings that reveal he understood the essential nature of poverty in the United States and the benefits that surely will follow in its demise.
What’s more, King plainly articulated the reality that continues to plague American society 40 years after his death. Just as it was in the late 1960s, prolonged and pronounced economic racial disparities and entrenched poverty across all races remains a source of friction and instability in 21st-century America.
Candidate Obama spoke similarly of the need to tackle poverty during his historic presidential campaign. This year presents President Obama with an important opportunity to fulfill that promise by articulating and implementing a national goal to cut the U.S. poverty rate in half between 2010 and 2020, starting with a job creation strategy to lift up the hardest-hit communities.
Or as King said, “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age …. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
Sam Fulwood III is a regular contributor to The Root and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Melissa Boteach is the director of the Half in Ten program at the center, which seeks to reduce poverty in the United States by 50 percent by the end of the decade.