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In pursuit of economic justice

The Philadelphia Inquirer

By Steven C. Pitts and William E. Spriggs

Some might be tempted to reflect on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by focusing on his dream of racial harmony. To appropriately mark this moment is to enter a bigger circle encompassing King’s living legacy of economic justice, a crusade against poverty, that was his final and most enduring campaign.

King saw poverty as the result of economic policy, not social pathology. “True compassion is more than flipping a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring,” he said.

Today, the quest for equality of income and opportunity is more urgent than ever as the nation struggles with a financial crisis and rising job loss. The gap between the poorest and richest in our society has not been this wide since just before the Great Depression. The burden of racism is matched by the strain of an economy that fails to reward workers regardless of race. Productivity has risen while wages have not kept pace with inflation. Half of the black-white male wage gap is due to market discrimination.

Things can be different. Between 1964 and 1969, black child poverty was reduced almost in half – falling to a low point that stood for 27 years; median income rose 20 percent for black men and 48 percent for black women. Unemployment rates for black men fell 40 percent, and 2 percent for black women.

These gains were not accidental. They were the result of a prescription to end poverty embraced by King that included anti-discrimination laws, unionization, a strong minimum wage, and a full-employment economy.

It would be interesting to know what King would make of today’s world. The poverty rate for black children in 2006 was 32.6 percent, just slightly lower than in 1969.

Many commentators would account for the persistence in poverty by pointing to the personal behavior of individual blacks. Hard data paint a different picture. In 2007, 82 percent of black men older than 25 had graduated from high school. This is a more than threefold improvement over 1969, when only 25 percent had graduated, and the rate for women is nearly identical. When King died in 1968, there were 90.6 children born per every 1,000 unmarried black women. Today, that rate has dropped to 67.8 children.

So in these two fundamental measures of behavior and personal choice, enormous progress has been made.

African American talents now fuel American growth, from vigorous participation as voters, to holding jobs as key public servants and top military leaders. Yet, we are left with the same poverty rates.

Calls for personal responsibility fall flat in the face of today’s policies of growing inequality. For instance, the minimum wage (when adjusted for inflation) and unionization rates are lower today than when King launched his “Poor People’s” campaign in 1968.

To recapture the spirit of King, we must change our thinking about the poor. Let’s channel King.

“We’ve come a long way in our understanding of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operations of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment. The poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent.”

During this Bush administration’s seven-year economic “expansion,” we have witnessed poverty rates rise; the loss of jobs – 3.5 million manufacturing jobs and almost 700,000 information-age jobs – and family incomes for those in the middle have remained flat. The nation must embrace the notion that poverty is not a natural condition. It is a consequence of conscious decisions involving economic policy, government priorities, and workers’ lack of bargaining power.

We can only honor the King legacy by finishing his mission of extending prosperity to all Americans.