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In light of dangerous inequality, it’s time for “dangerous unselfishness”

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Low-wage workers in Boston rally to oppose Andrew Puzder as nominee for Secretary of Labor in January 2017. People of color, especially women, are disproportionately represented in the low-wage workforce. Mary Babic / Oxfam America

Nearly 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, his words ring more clearly than ever.

Minor Sinclair is the director of Oxfam’s US program

The year my (white) family moved to Auburn, Alabama was the year that the school system was desegregated. It was 1971.  I entered the sixth grade in a school that had just been converted from the “black” high school to an elementary school accommodating all races. At the same moment, white parents of 50,000 Alabama schoolchildren pulled their kids out of the public system and enrolled them in hastily designed private schools meant for whites only.

At 12 years old, I didn’t see the dimensions of it all. I recognized that informal social codes kept whites and blacks apart (except in sports), and I knew that most Alabama private schools were founded to keep blacks out. But I didn’t appreciate what this divide meant for all of us, white and black, as we moved forward. While King and his movement desegregated the public schools, social attitudes and economic realities kept blacks and whites living (literally) on opposite sides of the train tracks in Auburn.

After high school graduation, we re-segregated. I went to a private liberal arts college, while many of my African American peers went to work (often in physical labor jobs) or, at best, earned sports scholarships to the local college. One African-American acquaintance, Tony, every bit as talented as I, went to work for the town hauling garbage.

I’m still haunted by how the river of opportunity that divided us: one fast current flowed to higher education, great opportunities and vacation homes, while the other branch dried up on the rocks of physically debilitating jobs and economic hardships.

“There are two Americas,” noted Dr. King in 1968. “In [one] America, millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them… But there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”

Nearly 50 years have passed since he spoke those words, but today we still feel the ugliness of inequality. The “racial wealth gap” is stubborn, and wide. On every measure of economic and social well-being, African-Americans do worse than white Americans. African-Americans are more likely to be poor, be out of work or hold low-wage jobs, and to experience homelessness and hunger. African-Americans live shorter lives, and black children are much more likely to live in single-parent households. Disparities in wealth and incarceration are particularly stark.

Stupefying gaps between the really rich and nearly everyone else threaten to tear the very fabric that unites us as a country. In a new report, “An economy for the 99 percent,” Oxfam shows that the gap between rich and poor is far greater than had previously been estimated. In fact, eight (white) men own the same wealth as half the world. In the US, the one percent controls 42 percent of the wealth.

The depth and breadth of poverty has terrible implications for all of us. As Dr. King himself asked in 1965, “What good does it do to eat at a lunch counter, if you can’t buy a hamburger?”

Economic injustice

What Dr. King dubbed “the evil of economic injustice” resonates today for whites as well as people of color. Our 2016 report Few Rewards showed that, while blacks and Latinos are more likely to hold low-wage jobs, it’s still true that most low-wage workers are white–and most of the people in poverty are actually white.

Hundreds of thousands of civil rights activists marched from the Washington Monument to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963.
Hundreds of thousands of civil rights activists marched from the Washington Monument to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963.

Oxfam’s program in the Gulf Coast has brought me back to my home state of Alabama, as well as the left-behind communities of Mississippi and the bayous of Louisiana.  I’ve worked closely with communities that lost homes in Hurricane Katrina, and people who lost jobs to economic downturns and forces they didn’t understand. I understand the skepticism of poor people in this region about government that seems to betray them at every turn.  For example, Mississippi each year makes the confounding decision to return $21 million in federal funds for the needy back to Washington, DC.

“I’d rather do something for my community here, with our own sweat equity, than go to Baton Rouge [the state capitol] to plead for help that doesn’t come,” said Rev. Tyrone Edwards, a leader from a bayou community in Louisiana which is 80 percent black.

Sadly, Martin Luther King would recognize all too well the economic and racial divisions which continue today. However, he was a man who never lost hope. He never lost sight of the dream.  He never lost faith in the innate humanity of individuals to overcome.

In his last speech in Memphis, Tennessee–where he was supporting the strike of sanitation workers for a living wage and was assassinated the next day–King pleaded to the world, “Either we go up together, or we go down together. Let us develop a new kind of dangerous unselfishness.”

Imagine what this world would look like if we all developed a dangerous unselfishness–here privilege and self-interest don’t trump the common good.

Take action now and tell Congress and President-elect Trump to fix our broken system that lets the richer get richer while the rest get left behind.

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    While I agree there is too much disparity between rich and poor I must push this question why is there still as much poverty as before? The US has spent billions, we have implemented every conceivable program to address and correct these problems and still not much has improved. Where they nothing but folly? Where was Obama during his 8 years? Did you ask for signatures @ the beginning of either of his 2 terms? If so what was his response? The definition of insanity is expecting a different outcome by continuing w/the same old polices. Its quite obvious that does NOT work! We need new fresh ideas to battle income inequality. It is my intent to become more aware of how this is addressed.

    1.'Minor Sinclair

      Thanks for reading, and inquiring. The stubborn nature of poverty, in the US and around the world, is confounding, and deserves a lot of questions and study.
      At first blush, it does appear that the poverty rate in the US has remained steady over many years, in spite of investments at state and federal levels.
      However, many experts are building a substantial body of work that shows that the “war on poverty” did in fact make a dramatic difference in the number of people living in poverty; and that transfer payments lift millions of hard-working families above the poverty level every day.
      The heart of the problem is HOW we measure poverty. Scholars and advocates have determined that the traditional metrics provide an inaccurate picture. In devising new and more accurate metrics, they are finding that poverty has in fact fallen dramatically since the 1960s; and that transfer programs are vital to this trend:
      “Indeed, according to an important new study by a group of economists at Columbia University, it has dropped by forty per cent. The main driver of this fall, in fact, has been the very type of anti-poverty programs that L.B.J. championed: food stamps and housing subsidies, Social Security and Medicare, and generous income subsidies, in the form of tax credits, for the low-paid.” (The New Yorker, “How the war on poverty succeeded”)
      The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities offered this analysis of Census data in late 2016:
      “Safety net programs cut the poverty rate nearly in half in 2015, lifting 38 million people — including 8 million children — above the poverty line, our analysis of Census data released yesterday finds. The Census data show the impact of a broad range of government assistance, such as Social Security, SNAP (formerly food stamps), Supplemental Security Income, rent subsidies, and tax credits for working families like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit. The figures rebut claims that government programs do little to reduce poverty.”
      At the end of the day, though, one of the best ways to alleviate poverty is to raise wages. However, the federal minimum wage has not budged from the poverty-level wage of $7.25 an hour since 2009. Congress has been denying all efforts to raise the wage, and has not even allowed it to come to a hearing since 2014.
      Oxfam has been advocating for an increase in the federal minimum wage for a few years now. On our map of the states, you can see that 58.3 million workers (43.7 percent) earn under $15 an hour. Nearly half the workforce is struggling to get by – especially women and people of color, who make up a disproportionate share of low-wage workforce.
      And finally, it’s critical to note that a huge trend in the past years has been the shocking increase in inequality. Between 1979 and 2007, paycheck income of the top 1 percent exploded by over 256 percent. Meanwhile, the bottom 90 percent have seen little change in their average income.
      And that trend is exacerbated by a number of factors: increasing number of low-wage jobs, wage stagnation, barriers to access to higher education, and more.

  2. Chris Hufstader

    Here are some of the references in Minor’s comments above (the links are not showing up for some reason)
    New Yorker:

    Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

    Oxfam minimum wage petition:

    Oxfam wage map:



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