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What Would Martin Luther King Do?

by Mara Voukydis

Photos by Anna Graves of rally held in honor of Martin Luther King's legacy in San Francisco.

Standard text version


Last year around this time, as throngs of protesters chanted and booed on the streets nearby, President Bush placed a wreath on Dr. King's grave in Atlanta. The president had said of King earlier that day that he wanted to "honor his life and what he stood for." Now, as we usher in President Bush for a second term in office, it's time to ask whether he has lived up to Dr. King's legacy. On Bush's watch, working people and poor people - disproportionately people of color - lost ground.

"Every American deserves to be an owner of the American dream," said Bush, but a great racial divide remains. If Bush wants to make this a nation where we can all be owners, he should be asking, "What would Martin Luther King do?"

What does it take to be an owner of the American dream? A house comes to mind, and a savings account, and a retirement account, maybe a business - and those things are usually accessible only to those with well-paying jobs, help from family and/or government subsidies. Yet, for generations, people of color have been afforded fewer opportunities to own, blocked by discriminatory practices in housing, loans, hiring, and more.

Decades ago, King spoke of millions of Americans "smoldering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society." This still rings true in 2005.

In the past four years, some gains made in the 1990s have been lost. In 2000, the Black unemployment rate dipped to an all-time low of 7 percent. Now, more than one out of 10 Black Americans is unemployed, as compared to roughly one out of 20 whites. The familiar call for personal responsibility loses its momentum when a person tries desperately and is unable to find work.

Income levels and poverty rates also have worsened since 2000. The number of families in poverty fell rapidly during the 1990s for all groups, but especially fast for Latinos and Blacks. Much of that progress has been lost in the past four years. As for earnings, the average Black income was 65 percent of white income in the year 2000, but 62 percent of white income in 2003. The first Bush administration blocked Congressional efforts to increase the minimum wage.

Many measures taken by other administrations to counter high joblessness, such as public works programs and extra state aid, didn't reappear in the Bush administration. Instead, tax cuts were supposed to be the cure-all. In fact, they only increased the racial divide by benefiting primarily taxpayers with very high incomes, who are overwhelmingly white.

Social Security privatization is another so-called solution that would actually worsen economic insecurity by lowering benefits, adding risk, and ballooning the federal debt.

Refreshingly, Bush has faced up to the racial homeownership gap, addressing certain challenges facing non-white Americans. It is hard to ignore the fact that while three-quarters of white families own homes, fewer than half of Blacks and Latinos, and less than 60 percent of Asians and American Indians, are homeowners.

While attention to the homeownership gap is welcome, much more should be done. Rising home prices, falling incomes, deceptive predatory loans, and discrimination block many renters of color from homeownership.

So WWMLKD? Of course, there is no quick fix for centuries of unequal opportunity, but there are many positive steps the federal government could take. The next Bush administration should maintain those few progressive taxes we do have, such as the estate tax, which funds services and programs for the neediest through after-death taxes on multimillionaires.

We need new policies that encourage wealth-building. Imagine a brand-new version of the post-WWII GI Bill, one that helps Americans build up nest eggs, get mortgages, and fund higher education. The money could come from closing corporate loopholes and giveaways.

King was greatly disturbed by the complacency of many Americans towards the economic injustice around them. He said, "Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security."

We should take heed as we inaugurate another four years of President Bush. The dream of economic security is still out of reach for many. If the president wants to honor King, he should do it not with words or a wreath, but with actions that patch up our damaged ladder of opportunity.

Mara Voukydis (mvoukydis@faireconomy.org) is a researcher at United for a Fair Economy (www.FairEconomy.org) and co-author of UFE's new report, The State of the Dream 2005: Disowned in the Ownership Society. United for a Fair Economy raises awareness of the damaging consequences of concentrated wealth and power.

King's Dream of Decent Wages for All

by Holly Sklar

Did you know that raising the minimum wage was a demand of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech? King, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and other leaders of the 1963 March on Washington demanded "a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living."

They didn't dream that four decades later, the value of the minimum wage would go down as the cost of housing, food, health care and other necessities went up.

They didn't dream that four decades later, 36 million Americans would be below the official poverty line - far below a decent standard of living.

They didn't dream that four decades later, the black poverty rate would still be triple that of whites. At the time of the march in 1963, the minimum wage was $7.80 an hour, adjusting for inflation in 2004 dollars. Today's minimum wage is far lower - just $5.15 an hour.

In Where Do We Go From Here?, King wrote, "There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer."

The minimum wage reached its peak value in 1968, the year King was assassinated. Today's $5.15 minimum wage is 41 percent less than 1968's inflation-adjusted minimum wage of $8.78. Full-time, year-round, minimum-wage workers made $18,262 in 1968, adjusting for inflation. Today's full-time minimum-wage workers make just $10,712 a year.

The minimum wage sets the wage floor. As the floor sinks, millions of workers find themselves with wages above the minimum, but not above the poverty level.

Business Week observed last year in a cover story on the working poor, "Today more than 28 million people, about a quarter of the workforce between the ages of 18 and 64, earn less than $9.04 an hour, which translates into a full-time salary of $18,800 a year - the income that marks the federal poverty line for a family of four."

One out of three black workers earns less than $9.04 an hour - barely above the value of the minimum wage of 1968.

Certainly, King didn't dream that four decades after the March on Washington, the U.S. Conference of Mayors would find in its annual "Hunger and Homelessness Survey" that 17 percent of the homeless were employed, as were 34 percent of adults requesting emergency food assistance.

The last minimum wage increases in 1996-97 were followed by rising incomes and falling poverty and unemployment nationwide. We need another boost to the minimum wage, and the economy.

Most Americans believe a job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it. Most Americans want to raise the minimum wage significantly.

Yet Congress has had seven pay raises since 1997, when the minimum wage increased to $5.15, while approving none for minimum-wage workers. This month, congressional pay rose to $162,100 - way up from $133,600 in 1997. That cumulative $28,500 congressional pay hike is more than the total earnings of two minimum-wage workers.

At the time of the 1963 March on Washington, members of Congress earned nine times the pay of minimum-wage workers. Now, they earn 15 times as much. To reverse that growing gap, Congress should tie their pay raises to raises in the minimum wage.

Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the March on Washington, has said if King were alive, "he would be in the forefront of reminding the government that its first concern should be the basic needs of its citizens - not just black Americans but all Americans - for food, shelter, health care, education, jobs, livable incomes and the opportunity to realize their full potential."

A. Philip Randolph introduced King before the "I Have a Dream" speech as "the moral leader of America."

Congress and the White House should stop taking a holiday from King's dream and enact "a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living."

Holly Sklar is co-author of Raise the Floor: Wages and Policies That Work for All Of Us (www.raisethefloor.org). She can be reached at hsklar@aol.com. Copyright 2005 Holly Sklar.


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