In the 50 years since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated the dream of a generation, the United States has seen significant progress toward the ideal of racial equality. But the other half of King’s vision – economic equity for all Americans – remains sadly unfulfilled.
America’s wealth and income gaps have grown to shocking proportions, in no small part due to federal tax and spending policies that have betrayed the great civil rights leader’s ardent hopes for a better society. To many, the quest for economic equality represents the last great frontier in civil rights.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, political and social progress is clear. Legally mandated racial segregation in the American South has been dismantled. African-Americans have come to occupy positions of power and influence, from the boardroom, to the statehouse and the White House. When I was first sworn into the House of Representatives in 1965, I joined just five other African-American members; today, there are 43.
Yet, there is need for continued vigilance. Voter suppression efforts plague modern elections. And Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which gives the federal government power to approve changes to the voting laws of certain states with a history of discrimination, has fallen victim to legal challenge.
But the most obvious failure to achieve equality is in the economic realm. With a few exceptions, U.S. income inequality has consistently worsenedsince reaching a low in 1968, according to the Congressional Budget Office and the U.S. Census Bureau. Over that same period, the average African-American household continued to earn about 60 percent of the average white household. The percentage of Americans living in poverty—after dropping to 11 percent in the years immediately following Dr. King’s 1963 speech—was back to 15 percent in 2011.