04/04/2008 02:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Remembering Dr. King's Legacy on Poverty

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in Memphis in 1968. And while plenty can be said about what more could have been accomplished had his life not been cut so tragically short, the legacy he left to us is one that we can rightfully celebrate and strive to uphold.

One of the most enduring (and, in my opinion, under-appreciated) aspects of Dr. King's legacy concerns his fight against poverty. From launching the Poor People's Campaign to speaking out against the Vietnam War's negative impact on the poor in America, his vision of a world without poverty is a vision I try to fight for every day. (I founded One Voice PAC in large part to bring more attention to reducing poverty and increasing opportunity in our country.)

We saw success in the fight against poverty this past January, when the House of Representatives unanimously supported a resolution I authored declaring it a national goal to reduce poverty in America by half in the next 10 years.

But to turn this priority into reality, we need to make systematic changes in the way we address poverty in America; addressing poverty should be one of our first priorities, not the last. And one of the first steps we should take is to end our generation's version of the Vietnam War, our occupation of Iraq.

When reflecting on his turn against the Vietnam War -- in large part because it was diverting badly needed resources away from places it was desperately needed here at home -- Dr. King noted, "I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."

We are witnessing a similar situation develop today. While funding for the occupation is appropriated with seemingly no limits -- hundreds of billions of dollars have already been spent on the occupation, with the total rising over $12 billion each month -- we are constantly being told that we simply "can't afford" to spend money to address the challenges that we face here at home. And all too often, it is those who live in poverty who bear the brunt of these cutbacks.

Last year, when the Democratic Congress passed legislation to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) -- a program that provides vital health coverage for millions of children who live in poverty and otherwise wouldn't have access to care -- by just $7 billion per year, the president vetoed the bill, claiming it was unacceptable since it represented an incremental step towards federalizing health care.

It is this sort of thinking -- focusing on maintaining ideological purity, rather than addressing the real problems that real people face -- that represents one of our greatest roadblocks to moving the 37 million Americans who live in poverty (and the 60 million more who are just over the poverty line) toward freedom from want for the basic necessities of life.

Thankfully, the tide is turning as the American people witness the lack of resources we have to address problems here at home, and acknowledge that the occupation of Iraq has not been worth the costs. As states are forced to cut vital programs that help those in poverty in order to balance their budgets in this worsening economic climate, the lack of action from the federal government becomes all the more glaring.

It is in this trade-off that we see yet more proof of the folly of our invasion of Iraq, which is why I recently introduced the "Iraq Recession" resolution tying the occupation to our current economic challenges.

Forty years after his passing, it is clear that we still have work to do to finish the job of ending poverty that Dr. King started. But if we make clear that domestic priorities are more important than simply sustaining a failed occupation, that a portion of our limited resources need to be directed to those living in poverty here at home, and that the worst-off among us shouldn't be the first punished in an economic downturn, I have little doubt that we can succeed.