Until I was eight years old, my family lived in a house that had no running water, and my mom, from time to time, would feed us a special treat for dinner of a giant biscuit and a mixture of cooked water and sugar. We didn’t know why the kids living in the houses with plumbing didn’t get to have that special treat. We felt sorry for them.
Right now, all around the country, people are just trying to put in an honest day’s work to help themselves and their families.
These are people doing all of the things we tell them they are supposed to do in America to get ahead. They are working hard, playing by the rules, and trying to provide for their families. But they’re finding that it’s not enough. You know it is not enough.
Many years ago, Dr. King fought for economic justice with his ‘Poor People’s Campaign’, which advocated an Economic Bill of Rights that guaranteed annual income for all Americans. He believed in Whitney Young, Jr.’s statement that ‘the hardest work in the world is being out of work’, and understood intrinsically the plight of the poor and unemployed. Dr. King truly defended the defenseless, spoke up for the voiceless, and stood steadfast for the causes of justice and peace. There are many ways to honor him, but one way is to honestly reckon with the work we have left to do.
This January 8th marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s State of the Union address calling on the nation to launch an “unconditional war on poverty.” This address signaled a renewed national commitment to fighting poverty through targeted policy resulting in programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Pell Grants, expansions to Social Security and nutrition assistance.
Congress is considering cuts to nutrition assistance and has failed to continue unemployment insurance for long-term jobless workers who were laid off through no fault of their own – an unprecedented move at a time with such high rates of unemployment. And some people want to go further. We can’t give in to these demands. Strong majorities of Americans support continuing or expanding these programs, not cutting them.
The War on Poverty hasn’t failed; our economy has failed. The War on Poverty put in place an essential social safety net that has helped keep millions of people out of poverty. This safety net goes back to early 20th century and includes vital programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and federal support for education.
But there’s much more to do to successfully keep people out of poverty and help them move into the middle class.
The real challenge today is that there aren’t enough good paying jobs for families to live on and the cost of housing, child care, and other basic needs is far too high. Those at the very top of the income ladder seem to be only ones benefitting from economic growth. With unemployment high and wages down, too many lower- and middle-income Americans are still living in the recession.
As inequality and outsize income gains at the top continue to rise, most of new jobs created in this country pay very low wages. Consequently, 46.5 million Americans live in poverty and 1 in 3 Americans teeter on its brink because our economy isn’t working for them.
Our safety net is working overtime to make up for the failed economy. When families fall on tough times due to job loss, unexpected medical costs and other challenges, programs like unemployment insurance, Medicaid, nutrition, housing, and child care assistance keep families on their feet.
I hear my colleagues telling folks to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but what if you’ve got no boots? I mean that both metaphorically and literally. If you lack certain basic resources, it becomes harder and harder to get by, let alone make progress. And when you’re worried about the basic necessities which we, so fortunately, take for granted—clothing, shoes, a warm coat, something to eat, somewhere to sleep—you can’t better yourself or your children.
My father worked three jobs to get us out of public housing and into our first home where my father still resides. There were four children in our family. All four children graduated from high school and college and two earned advanced educational degrees. We didn’t need a handout, we needed a hand up, so we could gain our own foothold.
This is an issue we can make progress on. Our nation knows how to dramatically cut poverty because we’ve done it before. Between 1959 and 1973, we cut our poverty rate nearly in half through an economy that worked for everyone and a strong set of programs that supported families when they struggled.
Our country has changed since that time and our policies haven’t caught up: Since the 1960s we’ve seen rising income inequality, an economy that requires higher levels of education to enter the middle-class, changing family structures and an increasingly important role for women and communities of color in the labor force. We need to adapt to these changes. As I have said many times in the past during the budget debate debacles on Capitol Hill, I believe that congressional budgets are a window into the moral compass of our conscience as a nation—and the compass has gone horribly off course. Recklessly cutting vital programs like job training, education, SNAP, and unemployment insurance for millions of hardworking American families is not a roadmap to balancing the budget—it is a road to nowhere.
The American people do not deserve this. Instead they deserve good jobs to care for their families. They deserve educational opportunities for their children. They deserve retirement security and access to affordable healthcare for their families. Instead of reckless cuts to programs that support Americans who are struggling, we need to focus our attention back on rebuilding an economy that works for everyone, including investments in job creation, education, and policies that provide a hand up to struggling families.
We should start by ensuring that every worker earns a living wage. Workers should be able to earn enough to support their families. Corporations need to pay their employees decent wages and adequate benefits. And, all levels of government should pay a living wage to their employees and should require living wages of government contractors.
We need to raise the minimum wage and tie it to inflation so that a family breadwinner’s pay keeps up with the rising costs of housing and other basic needs. The minimum wage of $1.60 an hour in 1968 would be $10.56 today when adjusted for inflation. 80 percent of Americans—and majorities of Democrats and Republicans-- support an increase in the minimum wage and Congress and state legislatures need to act now to ensure that those who work full time do not end up in poverty.
We’re at a critical point in our nation’s history, but as African Americans we survived the bitterness of slavery and oppression, held on to the hope of progress, and for generations many reached for, and in countless cases, achieved the American Dream.
We are in no way tired. From the chains of slavery, to the picket lines in Selma, and to the highest office in the land — we’ve climbed the great ladder but still, yet still, not everyone has a seat at the table. There is more work to be done.