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.
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.
It's appropriate as we pause to celebrate this year's national holiday in memory of King's 81st birthday to recall the relevance of his final struggle to the contemporary fight against poverty.
The most recent poverty data for 2008 reveal an America where nearly 40 million people--13.2 percent of Americans--live in poverty, and nearly one in three, or 31.9 percent, struggle to make ends meet at twice the poverty level.
Black and Latino Americans also continue to trail white Americans in unemployment rates and wages. The unemployment rate for white men over 20 was 9.8 percent in December 2009, but for black men over 20 it was nearly double that at 16.9 percent, and for Latino men it was a high 12.8 percent. Bureau of Labor Statistic figures for 2008 report that 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, underscoring the need to tackle racial disparities even as we aim to end poverty and create jobs for all Americans.
These numbers represent an affront to our moral sensibilities, as well as our economic self-interest and national competitiveness. The Center for American Progress released a report in 2007 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:
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, but 2010 is the year to change that.
Candidate Obama embraced during his campaign the goal of cutting poverty in half in 10 years. The Half in Ten campaign is advocating for the administration to translate that commitment 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.
First, Congress must invest in direct job creation that addresses long-neglected needs in communities. There is an immense need for workers that can provide health care services and weatherize homes; there are neighborhoods where deteriorating infrastructure calls for upgrades and new construction. Congress can put people directly back to work while simultaneously addressing unmet needs among populations suffering the most in this recession by funding direct jobs in these and other areas, investing in national service programs, and resourcing summer jobs programs.
Second, 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.