Hope Is in the Work: Continuing Martin Luther King Jr.’s Fight for Economic Justice
MLK Day is indeed a time to celebrate the monumental achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in civil rights. But it is important that we also honor his later legacy: a champion for economic justice. In many ways, America’s current economic vulnerabilities parallel Dr. King’s own observations about the unfinished work of the civil rights movement.
Five months before his assassination in April of 1968, Dr. King announced the Poor People’s Campaign in response to the shortcomings of civil rights legislation that allowed economic inequality to persist. Dr. King called for people of all colors and backgrounds to march on Washington, DC and demand jobs, education, a fair minimum wage and more.
But momentum was lost after his death, leaving much of this work on the backburner. Since then, poverty has increased from 9 percent to 12 percent among working age Americans. While more people are in the labor force today than in 1968, wages have not kept pace, making it harder for working Americans to make ends meet.
The gap between White and Black poverty has inflated, with a poverty rate of 8 percent for White Americans compared to a whopping 20 percent for Black Americans in 2017. Households of color today face a massive and growing racial wealth divide, with a median household wealth of $140,500 for White households in 2016 compared to just $6,300 for Latinos and $3,400 for Black households.
The current government shutdown has added yet another burden for many workers: making ends meet without receiving their paycheck this month. About 78 percent of U.S. workers are living paycheck to paycheck, and this is no different for federal employees and contractors, many of whom are unsure how they’re going to put food on their tables after missing their first check of the year. And because of the racial wealth divide, Black federal workers are the most vulnerable as the shutdown continues.
We also know that 40 percent of American households are liquid asset poor, meaning that they don’t have enough liquid savings to cover basic expenses for three months. With government employees expected to see backpay at an unknown point in the future and contractors not set to receive pay at all, this shutdown proves once again the dire need to make poverty reduction a high priority.
The very people King sought to lift up—those on the most vulnerable rungs of society—are those still hurting today. The best way to honor Dr. King is for our nation to turn its attention back to the unfinished work of economic justice.
To that end, Prosperity Now supports community-based organizations led by people of color across the United States to help them lead the change they want to see in their communities. These organizations—focused on addressing a range of challenges such as job training, health care, small business development among others—have partnered with Prosperity Now to help uplift vulnerable members of their communities. We firmly believe that those closest to the problem are closest to the solutions, and by strengthening community-based organizations, we are showing our commitment to Dr. King’s vision.
There are also some hopeful signs that legislation is heading in the right direction. In Congress, there have recently been discussions and proposals to raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour, create a jobs guarantee, expand tax credits for workers, invest in wealth-building opportunities for all children at birth and provide health care for all among other solutions to promote well-being. We anticipate more forward-thinking economic policies to be introduced in the months to come.
Whether any of these proposals gain traction and become reality in the coming years is uncertain, but we do know one thing for sure: to effect any change, those of us who believe in Dr. King’s unfinished goals will need to take action. We at Prosperity Now hope you will join us in our policy and programmatic work to put financial security and wealth equality for all families at the forefront in 2019.
As Dr. King labored towards his dream until his very last day, we are urged to remember that "hope is in the work". While the last few years reflect unrest and discord that echo the 1960s, we must pick up from where the Poor People’s Campaign left off in 1968 to create an economy that works for everyone.
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