The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

What would MLK say today?

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Abernathy_Children_on_front_line_leading_the_SELMA_TO_MONTGOMERY_MARCH_for_the_RIGHT_TO_VOTE (1) Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, march with civil rights movement co-founder Dr. Ralph David Abernathy and his wife Mrs. Juanita and their children on the front line of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. Photo: Abernathy Family

When it comes to wages and wealth for African Americans, economic freedom is still far from a reality.

Minor Sinclair is the director for the U.S. program for Oxfam America.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated for his enormous achievements in advancing civil rights for African Americans, yet King’s more radical calls for economic justice are all too often ignored. While his early career focused on ending segregation and violence against African Americans and securing voting and other legal rights, particularly toward the end of his life, King also turned his attention squarely to poverty and inequality.

“One America is flowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality,” King said. Yet “there is another America, and that other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”

With economic inequality in the United States at levels not seen since the 1920s and the ranks of low-wage workers growing, King’s words sadly still resonate.

While African Americans have made great strides in America thanks to the civil rights movement, King’s description of a racially divided nation remains true in all too many ways.

On every measure of economic and social well-being, African Americans do worse than white Americans. African Americans are more likely to be poor, be out of work or hold low-wage jobs, experience homelessness and food insecurity. Whites are almost twice as likely to have received a bachelor’s degree and to own their own homes. Blacks live shorter lives, and black children are much more likely to live in single-parent households. Disparities in wealth and incarceration are particularly stark.

In 2014, 26.2 percent of African Americans lived below the federal poverty level – which was $12,051 for an individual and $19,073 for a single-parent family of three – while the proportion of black children in poverty rose to 37.1 percent. By comparison, 12.7 percent of all white Americans and 17.9 percent of white children lived in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Moreover, 1 in 9 African Americans lives in “deep poverty,” which is defined as having income below half the poverty threshold, compared to 1 in 25 whites, while nearly half (49.3 percent) of African Americans lived in “near poverty,” defined as having income below twice the poverty line, compared to 30.5 percent of whites. Black families were also seven times more likely than white families to have stayed in a homeless shelter in 2010, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness.

Low-wage workers are also disproportionately people of color. Fifty-four percent of African American workers are paid less than $15 an hour, compared to 36 percent of white workers, according to the National Employment Law Project. The typical white man was paid almost one-third more ($919 per week) than the typical black man ($652) or woman ($608) in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Black men are also less likely than white men to even have a job – 70 percent of white men were in the labor force in 2014, compared to 61 percent of black men (black women, however, are slightly more likely to work than white women, according to the BLS).

And because black men were more than six times more likely than white men to be incarcerated in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center, it is extremely difficult for many ex-prisoners to get jobs and only a minority of young African Americans are even in the labor force.

Racial wealth inequality is considerably greater than income or wage inequality. The net worth of the median black household was just $11,000 in 2013, compared to $141,900 for the median white household, a 13-fold difference, according to the Pew Research Center. African Americans are much less likely than whites to own their own homes; in 2015, 72 percent of whites owned a home, compared to 42 percent of African Americans, the Census reported. Poor African Americans are also more likely to be concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods, unlike poor whites, who tend to be more geographically dispersed, according to a new report for the Century Foundation.

Although there are no simple answers to inequalities that can be traced back to 400 years of first slavery and then institutionalized racism, it’s clear that economic prosperity and political freedom go hand in hand.

That’s why drastically reducing the mass incarceration of black men and giving ex-offenders job opportunities and the right to vote are essential. Ending race-based police violence and hate speech is on the agenda of the mayors of virtually every major U.S. city.

The economic agenda, though, is no less vital. America needs to raise the minimum wage. Ensure equal opportunity in jobs. Strengthen the social safety net for those facing illness, unemployment, poverty and old age.

The combination of all too many police shootings of black men, black poverty, not-so-subtle efforts to diminish the black vote, and the reality that mass incarceration of black men is a strike against democratic practice explain why issues of systemic injustice toward African Americans – led by the Black Lives Matter movement – are rising to the center of the nation’s political debate.

In the short time between the August 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the killing of Michael Brown and Time magazine’s recent decision to name Black Lives Matter on its short list for its 2015 Person of the Year, the movement for freedom has progressed significantly since the flash point of Ferguson.

In the final hours of his life before his assassination, Dr. King marched with the sanitation workers of Memphis who were calling for economic justice – decent wages, fair treatment and the right to a union.

In his sermon in Memphis, King preached, “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’”

This post was originally published in the Washington Monthly.

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