King's legacy on economic justice falling on deaf ears

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Dr. King would be angry and ashamed.

Fifty years after then-President Lyndon B. Johnson used his State of the Union speech to urge an "all-out war on human poverty and unemployment," embarassing poverty rates still persist.

Our nation's leaders continue to argue over raising the federal minimum wage, which stands at a paltry $7.25 an hour. Congress, in its bid to help the downtrodden, just put the kibosh on legislation that would have extended unemployment benefits to people who can't find work.

Had he lived, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be 85 and again standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., this time protesting his country's campaign against the poor.

King's place as a civil rights icon is secure. His work pursuing economic justice should be too. Before he died, he was busy planning the Poor People's Campaign, a mass demonstration that attracted 3,000 protesters from all races to occupy a tent city on the Washington Mall. He spent the final night of his life in Memphis addressing striking garbagemen.

"I am now convinced that the simplest solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income," King wrote in his book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?"

King wanted the federal government to provide a financial floor based on median incomes. He said the payments would produce economic and psychological benefits, and the idea had the support of several well-known economists, including Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson.

That was then. This is now.

Poverty is still with us. While many cite the modest reduction in the poverty rate – 19 percent in 1964 to 15 percent in 2012 – poverty remains a problem.

Pew Reserch Center figures show most poor Americans today are in their prime working years, between the ages of 18 to 64. Childhood poverty still persists, and the number of poor families has shifted from those headed by married couples to those headed by single females.

While poverty among blacks dropped drastically since the 1960s, the research center's 27.2 percent figure is still more than double the 12.7 rate among whites.

Hispanics aren't doing much better. They came in at 22.8 percent in 1972, the first time such data was collected. In 2012, they were at 25.6 percent, and the data shows Hispanics were more than half of the 22 million-person increase in official poverty during that 40-year period.

The trials and tribulations facing the poor and a growing number of America's working and middle-class may concern the citizenry, but it hasn't been a priority with many in Congress.

For example, a recent Quinnipiac poll found 58 percent of voters support extending the unemployment benefits that expired last month for nearly 1.3 million unemployed people.

Many Republicans in the U.S. Senate, however, aren't keen on the idea unless there's an budgetary offset to the $6.4 billion the extension would cost. So, a Senate bill that would have extended benefits sits stalled, leaving the unemployed out of luck and with little options.

The talk out of Washington regarding the federal minimum wage isn't encouraging, either. President Obama wants to raise it, and many economists believe an increase is overdue. Tell that to politicians, like House Speaker John Boehner, who believe any increase would kill jobs.

"I know about this issue as much as anybody in this town," Boehner said last year after the president proposed a new $9 an hour wage. "And what happens when you take away the first couple of rungs on the economic ladder – you make it harder for people on the ladder."

Such malarkey would have confused King. Worse, he'd be embarassed by it.

The civil rights leader had high hopes. For all its problems, King viewed his country with a sense of optimism. He believed it had what it takes to address enduring difficulties, like race, poverty and economic inequality. King's dream was very much an American one.

"I still have a dream," King once said. "It's a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed ..."

Chalk it up as a work in progress, at best.

Douglas C. Lyons can be reached at dlyons@sunsentinel.com, or 954-356-4638. On Twitter@douginflorida.

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