Fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. presented his dream to the world in one of the best speeches of the twentieth century, we are far behind. Though his words inspired progress — many regard the March on Washington as the pivotal moment that paved the way for broad support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — Dr. King believed that rights weren’t enough.
In the last four years of his life, King’s focus shifted from civil rights to economic justice. He pointed out that despite the legislative and moral victories of the civil rights movement, the majority of African Americans still lived in poverty, had low rates of literacy, and could not enjoy the basic elements of human dignity that most Americans took for granted. Weeks before King was killed in 1968, he addressed a crowd of strikers in Memphis:
“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now, that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?…What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school, when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?”
We should be careful not to ignore this shift. As we celebrate great gains for civil rights today, we must acknowledge current economic injustice. King’s broader message, that human rights are hollow if people can’t afford to exercise them, is scarily applicable today. Nearly 2 million American households, including 3.5 million children, live in extreme poverty (defined by the World Bank as under $2 per person per day). This number is on the rise. Globally, over one billion fellow humans survive on less than $1.25 per day, adjusted for purchasing power.
Living at this income level requires people to endure a constant state of suffering without enough food, permanent shelter and access to basic healthcare and education. More than 6 million children die annually from preventable poverty-related causes; life expectancy in the lowest-income countries is thirty years below that of the richest countries. Lest we think poverty can be explained by differing attitudes towards work, one third of the global labor force, over 900 million people, work a full-time job, often under grueling conditions, and earn less than $2 a day. According to the Gallup organization, what the world wants most is good jobs, not handouts. This does not exclude the poor.
Three weeks ago in Uganda, I met a hard-working driver named Hamza whose five-month old baby girl died of pneumonia because the local public clinic in Kampala can’t afford to pay for a doctor on weekends. His eyes welled up as he told me that he and his wife didn’t have the funds to send his only child to the better private hospital nearby, where the doctors are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The deep economic injustice we tolerate today will shock future generations as profoundly as the brutal racial inequality that characterized Dr. King’s era shocks us today. On the fiftieth anniversary of his historic remarks, Dr. King would not want us to become complacent. We are making slow and unsteady progress towards his dream — billions of people live in avoidable suffering, despite their best efforts to improve their situation. But there is promise in new approaches that use entrepreneurialism, evidence-based approaches, and technology to make poverty reduction programs effective and increase the “voluntary tax” people are willing to pay to promote equality. In honor of Dr. King, below is a list of these.
*Note: I am affiliated with starred organizations in some capacity.