Progress against poverty stalled

April 04, 2008|By Benjamin Todd Jealous

To mark the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., many will reflect on the fires that erupted across America. Gone are the red embers of urban rage, replaced by the smoldering ashes of perpetually bombed-out neighborhoods.

Hard-hit Baltimore provides a window on the legacy of Dr. King's assassination. When the riot was over, six people would be dead, 700 injured and 4,500 arrested. Total property damage was estimated in millions of dollars.

But no one has calculated the cost of the effects of Dr. King's assassination in diminished opportunities to the successive generations of Baltimoreans (of all races) still trapped in poverty.

The "Promised Land" - the destination of the "revolution" that Dr. King talked about in the days before he was slain - was defined in economic terms. "The dispossessed of this nation - the poor, both white and Negro," Dr. King said, "live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty."

Dr. King's last transformative vision for our nation was not an idealistic dream. It was an urgent prescription for ending poverty and making the blessings of American citizenship meaningful to all in this country.

The need to fill Dr. King's prescription is as great as ever. Millions of Americans are scourged by an economic downturn fueled by the mortgage crisis and skyrocketing food and gas prices. Joblessness is increasing, and the opportunity-killing burden of racism is matched by the strain of an economy that fails to produce enough good jobs for all workers seeking them, regardless of race.

As summarized in a new report commissioned by the Rosenberg Foundation, worker productivity has risen while wages have failed to keep pace with the cost of living. The report proposes a counteroffensive on poverty, based on the philosophy embraced by Dr. King: In addition to creating jobs for skilled and unskilled workers, society must enforce strong anti-discrimination laws, eliminate barriers to unionization, and pay a living wage.

Dr. King's prescription for poverty was a striking success. By utilizing these strategies, between 1964 and 1969 the United States achieved the largest decline in poverty since World War II, reducing the number of black children living in poverty by almost half. In the decades since, these key policy levers have been neglected - and progress has stalled.

When adjusting for inflation, the minimum wage is lower today than it was in 1968. The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is a shadow of its former self, and most state attorneys general are timid enforcers of workers' rights. Moreover, workers wishing to unionize can typically expect little protection from public agencies like the National Labor Relations Board.

I have personally benefited from Dr. King's approach to ending poverty. My mother, among the first class of black girls to integrate Western High School, spent her early childhood living in McCullough Homes, a West Baltimore public housing development. Her parents were able to emerge from poverty because of hard work and a focus on education - but also because the economy was expanding, unions were growing, and the government created and enforced anti-discrimination laws.

Today, such opportunity is virtually an abstraction for most African-Americans with low incomes.

Personal responsibility is insufficient when the economy is structured to produce poverty. To recapture the momentum against poverty we have lost since Dr. King's death, we must have the courage to rebuild our economy.

Benjamin Todd Jealous is president of the Rosenberg Foundation, which this week released the report "Beyond the Mountaintop: King's Prescription for Poverty."

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