Reflecting on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a formidable task, and this blog is not intended to capture his undeniable greatness.
But as I entered this long weekend reading the alarming news of surging COVID and rising inflation, and thinking about how and who that impacts, I realized that it also may be time to revisit one of Dr. King’s dreams. Economic opportunity and equality for all.
And here two of his specific campaigns stand out: A Freedom Budget for All (in collaboration with A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin) and the Poor People’s Campaign.
Freedom Budget: A Plan for Economic Freedom for All
For those that remember Dr. King simply as a Civil Rights leader, it may come as a bit of a surprise that he was an empowering and fierce advocate of economic equality and opportunity. Actually, the famous March on Washington was fully called March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Much of the imagery evoked by Dr. King during the first part of his famous I Have a Dream speech pertained to the unfortunate economic realities that bound Black America and hindered American progress more broadly.
And his Dream – it demanded financial and economic inclusion.
A couple years after that iconic speech, A Freedom Budget for All (“Freedom Budget”) was started as an effort by Dr. King, Mr. Randolph, and Mr. Rustin to encapsulate that Dream into a policy to eradicate poverty. The Freedom Budget’s seven objectives are paraphrased below:
- Full employment to all able and willing, including education/training as needed
- Decent and adequate wages
- Basic living standards for those unable to work
- Housing security
- Affordable medical care and education opportunities for all
- Clean air and water to sustain our growth
- Full production and high economic growth
The creators of the Freedom Budget sought to accomplish these goals, and thus truly achieve financial freedom for everyone America, by 1975.
Economic Freedom Then and Now
That was nearly a half a century ago. They wrote then that there were 34M people living in poverty with another 28M people living “just on the edge.”
Today, the US Census Bureau estimates that there were 37.2M people living in poverty in 2020. While the temporary COVID benefits like expanded child tax credit helped reduce that in 2021, those policies are now expired and unlikely to return due to inflation concerns – and latest estimates indicate nearly 40M living in poverty.
If you take a different view and measure financial health more broadly, the situation (while improving) still remains dire. The Financial Health Network found that in addition to the 14% that are “financially vulnerable,” roughly in line with poverty rate estimates, another 52% or 131M people are “financially coping.”
From our own recent survey to be published in February 2022, we found that roughly two-thirds of respondents – in line with the combined numbers of financially vulnerable and financially coping – lacked the basic three months of savings. We know now especially how critical and powerful those levies are against the dangerous storms of financial shocks like job loss or hospitalization.
The thing is – most of us know this because most of us are coping or vulnerable, with little savings.
The only “new” things this time are COVID and rising inflation – and who do you think those impact the most?
So over half a century after Dr. King and other movement leaders sought to eradicate poverty and achieve financial freedom, we remained challenged by the economic conditions of our people.
How Dr. King’s Plans Remain True Today
As I revisited his work this weekend, I was struck by the uncanny similarities among the societal and economic problems that Dr. King was trying to address with our current environment – and how timeless Dr. King’s solutions in the Freedom Budget and Poor People’s Campaign remain today.
For example, Dr. King sought to create jobs and employ individuals by delivering on housing and hospital infrastructure and by creating education pathways. Thanks in part to sustainable work placement initiatives like OneTen and employer-university partnerships facilitated by workforce boards and private entities, we are seeing economic and educational advancement that’s directly contributing to broader economic growth and innovation across the country.
Dr. King also sought to increase the minimum wage in 1967 to $2/hour. With inflation, that same goal today would roughly be $16-$17/hour – oddly close to the cries for a federal minimum wage of $15/hour (up from $7.25/hour, which was last set over 12 years ago). As employers struggle with the Great Resignation, we are now seeing wages achieve those levels in metropolitan areas and slowly beyond.
And while we can celebrate pockets of progress, we must also admit our headwinds – COVID continues to add volatility to our personal health and has kept us below full production, national debt fears have constrained broad-based infrastructure development and related “desirable” job creation, high inflation in the last year has muted market-driven wage growth, digitization has created an unintentional division between a salaried “Zoomer” workforce and an hourly in-person workforce, and partisan squabbling and a deadlocked Congress have dampened people’s expectations.
A Dream We Must Realize
The confluence of these events is why I believe Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign – a march of cross-sectional America on Washington originally delayed by Dr. King’s assassination and later disrupted by Robert Kennedy’s assassination – will return in force this year to DC to demand truly sustainable, systemic change.
I believe that working families, now realizing their illimitable value in society and the rapid destabilization of their personal lives, will organize on Washington to elicit fair pay protected against inflation, safe and stable working conditions, relevant and equitable benefits, and many more of Dr. King’s policy prescriptions.
And when that happens – where will we be and what will we do as employers? As a country?