Have things gotten better or worse since 1967? That was the year a group of civil rights leaders, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., launched what they called the Poor People’s Campaign.
Sarah Anderson, of the Institute for Policy Studies, recently appeared on WOLB’s Lunch With Labor podcast to answer those questions, which are explored in The Souls of Poor Folk: A Preliminary Report.
50 years later, “we haven’t made much progress” toward reducing the poverty rate, said Anderson.
Anderson and her colleagues found that the official poverty rate is about the same today as it was in 1967.
While data shows that most Americans living in poverty are white, Anderson clarified that there is a significant proportional disparity. “People of color are disproportionately affected,” she explained.
Poverty is particularly prevalent among children of color. Anderson noted that while only 11 percent of white children find themselves living in poverty, the rates for black and Hispanic children are significantly higher, at 30.8 percent and 26.6 percent.
“It’s also worth noting that women, especially single mothers,” said Anderson, “are disproportionately represented.”
“In 2016, female-headed families were 5.4 times more likely to be living in poverty than married heads-of-households,” she added.
So, why hasn’t poverty decreased since the first Poor People’s Campaign? The problem is not, as some critics suggest, that anti-poverty programs haven’t worked. When many of the social programs we see today were introduced in 1964 and 1965, they were effective.
“For example,” said Anderson, “Johnson’s War on Poverty programs had huge impacts.” She offered Medicaid, child nutrition, Head Start, and food stamps as programs which contributed to a significant drop in the poverty rate from 20 percent to 12.8 percent.
The problem is, as Anderson noted, these programs are constantly under attack, and habitually underfunded.
Dwindling worker protections and an assault of the social safety net are taking their toll. For starters, there’s been a huge decline in the value of the minimum wage.
“The value of the minimum wage in 1968 was higher than it is today,” said Anderson. She explained that in order to match 1968’s value, today’s minimum wage would have to climb from a dismal $7.25 to $11.63, and even that wouldn’t match the $15 an hour many folks say is needed.
In addition, Anderson noted that the proliferation of “part-time, temporary, and contract positions” is also playing a role in poverty.
Also significant? The decline of unions.
Anderson noted that Dr. Martin Luther King’s last speech was a Memphis address to black sanitation workers who wanted to unionize and join AFSCME. King, she said, “understood very clearly that allowing workers strong union rights would allow them to bargain for their fair share of economic growth [instead of] assuming it was going to trickle down.”
Without unions, American workers are losing a powerful tool in negotiating fair pay, especially considering they are now competing with global workforces that lack labor protections. This allows companies to pay foreign workers substantially less than what most would consider a fair wage.
For these reasons and more, IPS is partnering with a revival of the Poor People’s Campaign, led by prominent faith leaders like Revs. William Barber and Liz Theoharis. The goal is to study, understand, and ultimately challenge these intersecting racial and economic inequalities.
Visit PoorPeoplesCampaign.org to learn more.
Listen to the full interview at WOLBBaltimore.com