The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization... The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty. – Martin Luther King
Today marks the 50th Anniversary Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. In reflecting on his role as a leader of the civil rights movement, it also reminded me of his often overlooked work fighting poverty in America.
In the final months of his life, King was organizing the launch of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, a national fight against poverty that would have rivaled the civil rights movement in scope. In a speech just one month before his assassination he had this to share:
"There is a problem of underemployment, and there are thousands and thousands, I would say millions of people in the Negro community who are poverty-stricken – not because they are not working, but because they receive wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. Most of the poverty-stricken people of America are persons who are working every day, and they end up getting part-time wages for full-time work."
That was over 40 years ago, and I’m sorry to see that income inequality is an even bigger issue today. With Ronald Reagan and the rise of trickle-down economics, the average American household’s wealth is now lower than it was in 1983, while the top 5% has seen their own share of the wealth skyrocket. More work needs to be done in the fight against racial inequality, but the battle against income inequality in America is the civil rights issue of our day.
That’s why, if Dr. King were around today, I have no doubt that he would be leading progressives in our fight to strengthen and expand Social Security, the most effective poverty-battling tool in American history.
Recent numbers released show that the only people who can retire without Social Security are the truly rich.
As you can see, it’s only the very wealthy who are able to save enough of a nest egg for a comfortable retirement. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the Social Security Board of Trustees found that two thirds of American households will not be able to maintain the same standard of living in retirement.
Keeping Social Security at the status quo simply isn’t enough. We must fight to expand benefits for seniors and future generations of retirees so that Americans can continue to retire and live with dignity.
This is best illustrated by Sheryl Tenicat, an Iowa senior who shared her story with Senator Tom Harkin at a recent event organized by Democracy for America. Sheryl explained how she was living on $624 dollars a month. Most strikingly, she pleaded for expansion of benefits instead of cuts because “there is no way for her to eat less.” If you watch the video you see her fellow seniors in the room nodding in agreement - like many others around the country, these seniors struggle to get by on Social Security as is.
Sheryl’s story is exactly the reason why on this 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington we should return to Dr. King’s battle against poverty, and embrace the best tool we have to that fight: Social Security. With ever expanding income inequality and a looming retirement security crisis, now is the time to expand these essential benefits and raise the payroll tax cap to strengthen Social Security for generations to come.
Poverty and income inequality are this generation's civil rights issue. As we remember Dr. King’s March on Washington, we as a nation must renew our commitment to the battle against income inequality and poverty that defined so much of Dr. King’s life and, in 2013, is needed now more than ever.