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Dr. King’s Legacy Relevant in Today’s Budget Battles

Legislators Should Focus on Helping Those in Need as They Tackle the Deficit


Martin Luther King Jr. addresses marchers during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Dr. King will be honored on August 28 with a memorial display on the National Mall.  

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This Sunday will commemorate the 48th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech, ending a week in which he was honored by the opening of a memorial display on the National Mall. Many of his calls to action are still timely today, particularly one of his signature objectives: to address the alarming numbers of Americans living in poverty.

In the 1960s, Americans had a government that refused to deliver basic human rights to its people. Over time, after battles in the courts and the political arena, laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 were passed. But despite these great accomplishments the fight continued because many Americans of all racial backgrounds were still living below the poverty line.

So in 1967, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided to organize and lead the Poor People’s Campaign to combat poverty. The goal was to push Congress to create an “Economic Bill of Rights” that would establish how the federal government would address and solve the country’s poverty issues. It called for full employment, affordable housing, reasonable living wages, and equitable education opportunities for the poor. Momentum built up around the country, but unfortunately the campaign ended early due to the tragic assassination of Dr. King and lack of organization to continue the efforts.

Nevertheless, the fight against poverty continues in 2011 with high unemployment and poverty rates due to the Great Recession and ongoing battles in Congress about cuts to programs that provide the greatest help to those in need.

Despite Dr. King’s campaign against poverty being cut short, government has played a role in helping many families and individuals escape from the perils of poverty since President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964. And it’s made a difference. According to the U.S. Census poverty is lower now (14.3 percent) during the recovery from one of our nation’s biggest economic crises than it was in 1960 (22.2 percent).

Although there is clearly more work to do, social programs are successfully preventing millions from suffering from food insecurity, unemployment, and homelessness as a result of the Great Recession. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act investments in the SNAP program helped prevent an estimated half million low-income households from suffering from food insecurity in 2009. Altogether, ARRA and the SNAP program are examples of how aggressive investments can help improve the lives of America’s people, realizing one dream of Dr. King—alleviating poverty in America.

In the coming weeks the congressional super committee will convene and make major decisions aimed at reducing the national deficit. We know that we can reduce poverty while still balancing the budget as the Center for American Progress’s plan demonstrates. But to do so, legislators will need to stop the partisan warfare and focus on how we can improve the lives of all Americans, especially our most vulnerable ones. They will need to face the fact that they must take swift action and begin to raise revenue to prevent cutting areas such as antipoverty funds, which many Americans continuously support and which can be the difference for many struggling Americans.

As Dr. King said: “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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Jasmin Jones is the Special Assistant for External Affairs at American Progress.

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