30 years later, scorn for America's poor


THIRTY years ago, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy led caravans of people to Washington in the Poor People's March to protest poverty and racial discrimination. Abernathy had picked up the baton from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but who has picked up the baton from Abernathy?

A generation ago, it was possible to rally people to the nation's capital on such issues, but today poor people have become the targets of our nation's contempt.

How else do we explain congressional reluctance to increase the minimum wage by just a dollar an hour? Business critics say that an increase from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour would be inflationary and cause job loss. But with a soaring stock market and falling prices in some sectors, there is no better time to increase wages. The 10 million people -- largely women, disproportionately household heads, disproportionately black and brown -- would see their quality of life increase with better wages.

Our national hostility toward the poor may also explain the lack of subsidized housing. Federal subsidies for affordable housing have declined in the past decade, and while the number of families who need rent subsidies is rising, the number of low-rent apartments has been falling.

Our nation has moved 180 degrees from the direction King and Abernathy were pointing toward. Then, we were alarmed that so many of our children lived in poverty. Now, the fact that a quarter of our nation's children are poor, and that an even greater number fall asleep with empty stomachs at the end of the month, does not seem to disturb us.

Have our hearts hardened to photographs of homeless and hungry children, or have we convinced ourselves that their distress is a preventable, "personal" problem?

Have we become so smug about economic expansion that we have failed to note increasing requests for emergency food and shelter in our big cities?

Waning activism

Have we decided that rallies, protests and other mass actions cannot eradicate society's inequities, or have we become so weary that we aren't willing to try anymore?

Those who repudiate the vision of the Poor People's March are all too eager to quote King when he said that he looked forward to the day people are judged by the "content of their character, not the color of their skin." They forget that King did not travel to Memphis in April 1968 to increase character. He risked his life to increase the wages of Memphis' low-paid garbage workers.

King said that poverty was as much "an abomination as cannibalism at the dawn of civilization." And when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he said, "I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, peace and freedom for their spirits." Amen.

King had the ire and the fire for dozens of Poor People's Marches. It is we who have dropped the baton.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/08/98

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