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Racial and ethnic minorities are still disproportionately counted among the poor in America. Reducing employment among them and increasing the minimum wage would go some way in realizing the ‘promised land’ that Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of

In 2014, Americans and friends of America are mark the 50th Anniversary of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s openly-declared War on Poverty. In January, as America and the world celebrate the 85th birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is important to remember the correspondence between King’s cry for racial harmony as well as equality and Mr. Johnson’s insistence that America throw off the shackles of unjust income inequality. This is especially so today, as poverty does not only characterize the lot of racial minorities, but it also increasingly affects college graduates, who are squeezed on one hand by a tight labor market and on the other by enormous loads of burdensome student debt.

Sadly, fifty years after President Johnson’s war on poverty, not only racial and ethnic minorities are still disproportionately counted among the poor, but also the demographics of poverty are becoming more diverse. Therefore, one wonders what Dr. King – if still alive – would have felt on his 85th birthday. Out of concern for the state of affairs, various politicians and scholars have theorized on the issue of continued poverty and inequality, especially as America endeavors to observe the 31st anniversary of the King Holiday. President Barack Obama, for example, has described inequality in America as a ‘defining challenge of our time’. Consequently, he has urged the U.S. Congress to restore unemployment benefits for 13 million Americans, who are out of job. However, a lot more must be done by all and sundry to address the diverse types of poverty that exist in America today.

Being skeptical of the prevailing labor statistics, in the midst of the poverty debate, U.S. Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, on his part, has pointed out that the current government has misspent its safety-net money and, as a result, the country should focus more on economic and job opportunities instead of supporting those, who merely claim to be in need. Yet, Brookings Institutions’ Ron Haskins has offered an assessment that poverty rates in America are too high among children, and that spending money on government means-tested programs is at best a partial solution.

In the context of Dr. King’s contention that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, many Americans hope that the coinciding trends of King’s 85th birthday and the 50th anniversary of President Johnson 1964 declaration of war on poverty will be utilized to help uplift many Americans from their economic doldrums. That, it is felt, can be done in a variety of ways, including Congress agreeing to raise the federal minimum wage from its current $7.25 to, at least, $10.10. In doing so, it will be part of the measure for America’s poor, whom Dr. King sought to lead to the proverbial ‘Promised Land’, to see light at the end of the economic tunnel, more so if the unemployment rate of America can be brought down from its current 7 per cent level. Accomplishing that would indeed be a befitting tribute to the legacy of Dr. King as his birthday is observed in all 50 States, although that too is not enough. Poverty, at its root, is a structural problem and its solution lies not only in the creation of more jobs and higher wages, but in the provision of solid K-12 education and affordable as well as diverse and inclusive access to higher education.

It will take bi-partisan efforts, like those that led to the creation of the recognition of MLK Day and the subsequent King Holiday and Service Act, which was co-sponsored by former Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Harris Wofford and Atlanta U.S. Representative John Lewis. Racial and ethnic minorities as well as many rural Whites have been waiting over 50 years for America to get its economic house in order. As more diverse people occupy the ranks of the poor, we need stealth, equitable as well as inclusive policies that see the poor as untapped resources rather than burdens in need of a hand out.

* A.B. Assensoh, a historian and professor emeritus of Indiana University, USA, is courtesy professor and Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh, a lawyer by training, is political science professor and vice-president of equity and inclusion at University of Oregon in Eugene, USA.