Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Dr. King's words ring louder than ever this year, and guide us toward action

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MLK Day 2022.jpg
The monument to Dr. Martin Luther King in Washington DC opened to the public on August 22, 2011. Photo: f11photo

MLK Day 2022 comes at us with a burst of feelings so startling it’s like fireworks. We have the joy of Dr. King’s legacy and the sharp urgency of his call to action—but we also feel the dark weight of the injustices that endure. What now is our call to action?

In his short lifetime, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote and spoke powerfully about the challenges facing us all. He captured the moral urgency of the moment clearly, and his insights, vision, and incisive genius endure.

Sadly, the challenges have endured, as well.

More than 50 years since his death, our country has stumbled and tripped on the arc toward justice, and today we find ourselves in a precarious moment where equity, democracy, and justice feel more fragile than ever. Many forces have combined to blow people out of security and into the edges of our society and economy: corporate power, White supremacy, climate disasters—and now, COVID-19.

So much has not changed. In 1968, Dr. King noted that,


That island has become more crowded, as workers have been hit by stagnating wages, inadequate benefits, busted unions, the erosion of voting rights, and fallout from the pandemic. And material prosperity is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the ultra-wealthy.

Indeed, power in this country has been shifting for decades, toward corporations and the wealthy and away from working people—something that would have dismayed Dr. King, who called for restructuring the capitalist economy to protect and provide for every working family.

So, each year as we honor his legacy, we try to look at the world through his eyes and ask ourselves the best way forward. How can we counter the harsh forces at play and center love in our politics and our economy?

Here are some concrete steps that put working families at the center, and have the potential for real, transformative progress toward justice and prosperity.

1 Raise wages, starting with the federal minimum wage.


In 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, where he had travelled to show support for striking sanitation workers. While there, he spoke out about the reality of the working poor, and the fact that employers take advantage of marginalized populations. “Someone has been profiting from the low wages of Negroes,” he said.

Too true, and the avarice of ultra-wealthy employers has only grown in recent years. Since the start of the pandemic, US billionaires have added $2.1 trillion to their fortunes, their collective wealth skyrocketing by 70 percent.

The wage floor is established by the federal minimum wage. Ironically, the federal minimum wage was actually at its highest point in real value in 1968. We are now at a shameful point where it has not been raised in 12 years, and is stuck at the poverty rate of $7.25 an hour ($290 a week, $15,080 a year). If the wage had kept pace with productivity, it would probably be around $24 an hour today.

The Raise the Wage Act would raise the federal minimum to $15 an hour by 2025; this boost would benefit at least 27 percent of America’s workers. Most of these workers are adults who are working full time and supporting families. Black workers are disproportionately represented in the low-wage workforce, so while 27 percent of the total workforce would benefit from the raise, 38 percent of Black workers—nearly seven million people and their families—would benefit.

This bill sailed through the House, and stopped short in the Senate—reminding us of Dr. King’s words: “It is easy to conceive of a plan to raise the minimum wage and thus in a single stroke extract millions of people from poverty. But between the conception and the realization there lies a formidable wall.”

2 Restore and honor rights to organize.


Unions have a long history of reducing inequality, particularly for workers who’ve experienced workplace discrimination and workers in low-wage sectors. Unions improve compensation and working conditions, and protect workers who join together and speak out.

The PRO Act (Protecting the Right to Organize) would restore the rights of workers to freely form a union and engage in collective bargaining. Like many other pieces of legislation that would deliver transformative change, it passed the House and got stalled in the Senate.

3 Protect voting rights and prevent voter suppression.


Although it was an enormous victory when Dr. King led the way to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, our country has seen countless attempts to disenfranchise voters, especially Black voters. President Biden has labeled these restrictions “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.” They pose a threat to the very foundations of our democracy.

To restore and preserve rights to vote, the House has passed three significant pieces of legislation: the Freedom to Vote Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and the Freedom to Vote Act. And yes, all are stalled on the Senate side (yes, that’s a pattern).

4 Change the tax system so the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share.


In 2020, there were 37 million people living in poverty in the US, at the same time that the ultra-wealthy amassed more money than ever. We'll say it again: Poverty is a policy choice.

We must change the tax system so everyone pays their fair share. In recent decades, it has tilted wildly in favor of corporations and the wealthy, as well as white households. The 2017 tax cut drained our coffers and shifted the tax burden onto households that couldn’t afford it.

It's well past time to raise taxes on the rich and corporations, fund the IRS for better enforcement, and fund programs that would create good, green jobs.

5 Acknowledge and honor the dignity of every person.


“Every man is somebody because he is a child of God,” said Dr. King.

The meaning stands tall with or without the spiritual aspect: every person has worth, dignity, and rights. Every person is beloved.

Indeed, Dr. King envisioned a world where everyone is cared for, and he had a name for it: the Beloved Community.

We are not here to feed the rich, and our work is more than labor to fill their coffers. Our lives are rich with meaning, family, community, and the inherent dignity of work.

But to achieve the idea of the Beloved Community, we need to join hands and fight for it. There is no legislative ask here, just a shout to the skies that we won't stop.


To be honest, these are dark days for many of us who've spent our lives fighting for progressive change. We're feeling the urge to despair, and to turn inward.

But it's not really an option. Even if it feels like we're swimming against tides that are too powerful, and are pulling us backward, the reality is that we can't stop. We must spend this "wild and precious life" in the pursuit of justice and equity.

To quote the great poet Mary Oliver, "Tell me, what else should I have done?"

Join us to take this one quiet day remembering Dr. King and honoring his legacy—and then join us to stand up and step back onto the road toward justice. It is all that we can do.