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Remember King, tackle economic woes

Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther King had turned his attention and his powerful voice toward a subject that has a firm grip on the United States today: broadening poverty and deepening income inequality. Given King’s impact on tackling civil rights injustices in this country, he might have prodded politicians and the rest of us long ago into addressing those issues had he not been assassinated at 39 in 1968.

Still, today, with the celebration of King’s birth, it seems fitting that those pressing matters are finally getting needed attention in influential quarters. Just last week, President Obama convened at the White House nearly 100 college presidents who pledged to expand higher-education opportunities for minority and low-income students. Obama last month targeted affordable post-high school education as one of the keys to moving people out of poverty, bridging the widening wage gap and increasing economic mobility. Across the political aisle, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, viewed as a future presidential candidate, also has taken note of the “erosion of equal opportunity” in the U.S. and urged changes.

Last week, the Brookings Institution released a report taking note of the “damaging opportunity gap” that exists in America, observing that a child raised in the bottom fifth of the income distribution in the U.S. now is almost six times as likely to remain there as to reach the top fifth.

A report released ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week says such inequality is a problem worldwide but particularly so in the U.S. Among the major developed countries, only Italy and the United Kingdom have less economic mobility than the U.S.

King’s concern for those problems consumed him in the five years before his death. It was no accident that the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that he helped plan, and where he gave his most memorable speech, positioned “jobs” before “freedom” in the title. King understood the need for economic mobility in maintaining a free and just society. A year after the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, King joined civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin in releasing a blueprint for economic justice called the “Freedom Budget.” In it, they focused on specific strategies to abolish poverty and provide good jobs for all Americans – not just black Americans.

King wrote the foreword to the plan, noting that “the long journey ahead requires that we emphasize the needs of all America's poor.” The “Freedom Budget” targeted equitable tax and money policies, updated Social Security and welfare programs, affordable medical care and adequate education, clean water and air, decent housing, adequate wages as well as full employment and abolition of poverty. These are all issues the country still needs to grapple with in addressing growing disparities.

By October of 1967, King had announced a Poor People’s Campaign to call attention to America’s economic injustice and widening income gaps. That poor people’s campaign would take place in May and June of 1968, but King would not live to see it. He was assassinated on April 4.

The campaign didn’t move the country – especially political leaders – to act on those issues. Some would say it made politicians dig in their heels in opposition.

But King was right to vociferously prod the country to act on the matter. Today, in remembering his extraordinary life, others should take up the cause and press for policies and strategies to improve the plight of the poor, reduce income disparities and boost economic mobility. King’s life was cut short in pursuit of those worthy goals. Let’s commit to finishing the work he started.

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