As the country celebrates the unveiling of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and reflects on the historic March on Washington, this is an opportune time to highlight economic justice, a key element of Dr. King's vision for America. In 1960, 1/5th of the country, approximately 39 million Americans, lived at or below the poverty line. Racial inequality was accepted as the norm and many disenfranchised communities had little hope of socio-economic advancement. Dr. King in his famous "Letter from the Birmingham jail" described the situation as one where the disenfranchised were "smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society." In 1963, a rallying cry against these conditions was heard throughout the world at The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At this "March on Washington," Dr. King delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech where he advocated for racial and economic justice, asserting that freedom was inextricably tied to both.
The March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs galvanized the government to act and within a few years President Lyndon Johnson created government programs, also referred to as Great Society Programs, that provided educational, social and employment training services to eliminate poverty. Approximately $10 billion dollars were allocated towards the creation of programs such as the Food Stamp Program, Medicare, Medicaid, Jobs Corps, and Head Start, all which began to significantly address the poverty crisis. In fact, between 1959 and 1969, the number of people classified as being in or near poverty dropped from 22.4 percent to 12.1 percent -- 39 million to 24 million -- clear evidence of the effectiveness of these programs. As funds for these programs were diverted to fund the Vietnam War and later experienced massive cuts, the nation's poverty rate began to creep back up to 15% during the Reagan years and in the midst of the ongoing Great Recession at about 14%. Over the last thirty years our national economy has increasingly seen its wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and this has been a primary stumbling block to advancing Dr. King's dream into a reality.
Currently, in the U.S., we are facing generations of underemployment, financial insecurity and enormous levels of inherited debt. Almost 50 years after the March on Washington, racial economic inequality is on the rise rather than declining. The national unemployment rate is 9.2 percent with African American and Latino unemployment at 15.9 percent and 11.3 percent respectively. Income inequality is higher now than when Dr. King died in 1968. Since 2005, Hispanics and African-Americans have experienced a drop in wealth at 66% and 53% respectively. Youth unemployment is currently at 19% and even worse, a staggering 35% for African American youth. And yet, poor communities and communities of color may experience even harsher economic realities as the ongoing debt debate is centering on cutting "entitlements" or government investments which have been at the center of keeping low to moderate income Americans from falling into poverty.
Dr. King states, "There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it." We are currently funding three unpopular wars that, like the Vietnam War, are diverting a significant amount of dollars that could be used to aggressively combat poverty and provide opportunities to reclaim the American Dream. It is simply a matter of priorities. Therefore, in the spirit of Dr. King's legacy, let us reevaluate our country's commitment to the groups Dr. King sacrificed his life to protect -- the economically vulnerable and recognize that advancing a strong middle class economy must have progressive policy as the center of the struggle (e.g., social safety net, government investment in opportunity and equity, and progressive taxation on the wealthiest of Americans). Let's not commemorate Dr. King's memorial without recommitting ourselves to fulfilling the vision he and so many brave men and women fought for -- economic justice for all.
By Dedrick Muhammad, Senior Director onf the NAACP Economic Department and Nicole Kenney, NAACP Economic Education Specialist.