Dr. King’s dream of economic equality—what can make it real?

Aug 12, 2014

Fast food workers strike for a living wage.

A new poor people’s movement and a new system

In March 1968, a meeting was held in Atlanta between representatives of 100 people’s organizations committed to building a poor people’s march on Washington under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. This effort to challenge the unjust distribution of wealth and power was to be organized under the slogan, “Jobs or income now!” This was a demand to the federal government to provide every person the right to a job and, if this could not be provided, a guaranteed living income.

Tragically, the poor people’s march never took place, as Dr. King was assassinated one month later. Forty-five years later, poverty and unemployment remain at the core of U.S. society despite decades of increased productivity and economic growth. But neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have a plan, or even the desire, to end these injustices. Instead, to fulfill Dr. King’s last vision of ending inequality will require a new campaign of poor and working people.

Democrats’ unpromising ‘Promise Zones’

On Jan. 8, the Obama administration announced that the government was designating five oppressed communities across the country as “Promise Zones,” and introducing special programs to reduce poverty. This was supposed to signal a new turn in the presidency towards reducing economic inequality.

One of the five communities is the super-oppressed Black neighborhood of Mantua in Philadelphia, an acknowledgement that some of the country’s worst economic conditions are inflicted on African American communities.

Upon closer examination, however, the Promise Zones are hardly anything new or visionary. The core components include issuing tax credits for small businesses that hire local residents (programs which statistically tend to fail), relying on the non-profit sector for job training and helping people “navigate federal programs.” These initiatives will just require a lot of new paperwork in a patronizing effort to ensure “accountability.”

Tax credits, non-profit grants and “job training” (without actual jobs) have been tried before, including in the original “War on Poverty” programs initiated by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. Dr. King launched his poor people’s movement because he knew such policies would never do the trick. For the Democrats to propose the same failed policies 50 years later insults his legacy and is a poor substitute for the just demand for jobs or income.

All their measures utilize the racist theory that communities are impoverished because their residents are unmotivated and not “job ready.” They are rooted in the false assumption that the capitalist economic system works well, and the task is to pull into this system the “marginalized” communities.

Poverty and unemployment at crisis levels

The reality is that people are not poor because they have been “left out” of the economic system. They are poor because they are already part of a system designed to produce inequality, where a tiny few live off of the labor of the vast majority.

Despite the enormous productivity of the U.S. working class, the official poverty rate stands at 15 percent—46.5 million people. The poverty line set by the government is outrageously low: $23,000 a year for a family of four. When we include those who are “near poverty,” about half the population lacks basic economic security.

Despite the official unemployment rate of 6.7 percent, government statistics put the number at 13.1 when one includes workers who they say have “given up” looking for a job and those who have been forced to work part-time.

The rich are totally immune to this poverty and unemployment crisis, are enjoying record profits and have joyfully declared the end of the recession.

Among poor and working people, the suffering is not distributed evenly. In 2011, 10 percent of whites were officially in poverty compared to 28 percent of African Americans. A similar disparity can be found in employment—12 percent of Black workers are officially unemployed, double the rate of whites.

The disproportionate levels of poverty and unemployment imposed on Black communities are main components of what socialists call national oppression—suffering inflicted on a whole people based on their national background. In the United States, national oppression developed along the lines of white supremacy. Black people are generally held to the lowest-paying jobs, are “first fired, last hired,” while facing racist abuses in all arenas of society and being denied their right to determine their own national destiny.

Inevitable under capitalism

For the capitalist system to survive and thrive, its rulers must accumulate more and more wealth. To keep wages low and retain “flexibility” as employers, they want and need a pool of idle workers desperate for a job. Unemployment is not accidental.

Of course, the politicians who represent the capitalist system will not not admit this. So how do they explain racially disproportionate poverty? In previous eras, they used biological explanations—blatant white supremacy. But this is no longer accepted, in large part because of the heroic struggles of the Black nation. Now they use more sophisticated racist ideas, such as the “culture of poverty” thesis.

According to this backwards ideology, the programs, resources and opportunities already exist that will allow people to lift themselves out of poverty. But generations of concentrated impoverishment has created a “culture” in which poor people are simply ignorant of the steps they have to take. The racist implications are obvious—if poverty disproportionately affects Black and other oppressed peoples, then their culture must be inferior to the dominant white culture.

Both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, use a variant of this thesis. While they may disagree on how many social programs to cut, the long-term “solutions” they offer are all basically the same – get job training, go to college, start a business. In other words, people living in poverty need to make themselves more appealing to the country’s corporate rulers or, by some miracle, become capitalists themselves.

But these “solutions” keep the system intact and keep workers locked in competition with each other, attaining skills only to get a leg up on the next worker. A real solution would be an economic plan that actually guarantees jobs and the basic necessities of life to all.

Socialism is the solution

Poverty and unemployment can be uprooted, but it requires changing who holds power in society. The big banks and corporations, the leaders of the capitalist class, have been able to retain this deeply unequal and racist system for so long because they hold the power of the state—the police, prisons, army, courts, etc.

Socialism reverses this relationship and puts the state in the hands of poor and working people. Rather than organizing the economy on the absurd basis of profit, the working class could put society’s vast productive potential to use making sure that everyone has the guaranteed right to a decent home, a job, food and all the comforts of a life with dignity. Eliminating the racism and discrimination at the heart of the capitalist economy would be made a top priority. It is no wonder that Dr. King was evolving in a more socialist direction the more he studied and organized around economic inequality.

Poor and working people across the country are now intensifying the fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage, the right to form a union, affordable housing and more. PSL activists and organizers are joining these efforts, and aim to take it to the next level. For oppressed people to fulfill the historic mission of the Black freedom movement, to win “jobs or income” for all, requires a new poor people’s campaign and ultimately a whole new society.