This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address issues of economic justice conceived by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before his death.
And while the Civil Rights movement stressed integrated schools and voting rights for African-Americans, the Poor People’s March encompassed the economically disadvantaged of all races: Latinos, Native Americans, Third-World immigrants and poor whites.
In his book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” King endorsed a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” and the idea has as much merit today as it did when the march ended 40 years ago. Dr. King’s agenda included plans for massive federal investments in jobs and housing programs. The march went on after his tragic death in April of 1968, but these plans never passed Congress. Forty years later, how are the poor doing in California?
The answer is that while some progress has been made, the poor in California are now falling behind the rest of the nation. In 1970, California averaged 20 percent fewer poor families than the national average (12 percent of Californians versus 15 percent of all Americans).
Today, those figures have been reversed as California now has a greater than average percentage of children living in poverty (19 percent in California compared to 17 percent nationally). Official Census data show that California has both the most poor people (more than 5 million and counting due to the recession) and one of the largest percentages of poor families in all of the 50 states.
It is true that poverty affects people of color more: The child poverty rate for Latinos and African Americans is about 27 percent, while the child poverty rate for Asians is 13 percent, with the poverty rate for whites at 8 percent. Poverty is also greater among Native Americans (19 percent) and children of immigrants from the Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos (26 percent).
More than half of poor children in California are U.S.-born Latinos. But there are numerous white-majority counties like Colusa, Del Norte, Glenn, Lake, Lassen, Modoc and Siskiyou with poverty rates 50 percent greater than the state average. Due to our stratospheric housing costs, California is in the bottom 10 percent in homeownership and also has more homeless than any other state.
Nor is the “welfare-dependent” stereotype of poor families accurate. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, about a third (34 percent) of poor children have a parent working full-time, and another 39 percent have a parent working part-time. More than two million children live in poverty despite their parents “doing the right thing.” California has the most families earning the minimum wage and more working poor than anywhere else in the nation.
If the present trends of increasing poverty continue, the Golden State could be headed toward a future where a privileged few do well, while the majority struggles.
So the problems are real. Here are some workable solutions:
• Green Jobs: Let’s put Californians back to work cleaning up the environment in jobs that require a variety of education and experience levels and pay decent wages.
• Education: The state is ranked 47th in overall educational achievement, according to a Congressional Quarterly study. To prosper in the 21st Century, California will simply have to re-commit itself to K-12 education.
• Health Care Reform: Those who did not have health care coverage are essentially one illness away from bankruptcy. The Legislature’s health proposal in 2007 was a victim, in part, of this year’s budget crisis. But when revenues return to normal, health care reform should be the first priority for state government.
• Transportation: Voters two years ago wisely approved a series of bonds to improve California’s infrastructure. Future transportation projects must strive to be both time-efficient and environmentally friendly in creating affordable, un-congested alternatives (like mass transit). And projects like the High Speed Rail Initiative can help restart our economy by generating well-paid jobs that can’t be outsourced.
While I represent a coastal district that includes some of the most affluent areas of California, I also recognize that a society continually polarized by poverty will eventually hurt everyone, regardless of wealth. Any society divided by income, race and ethnicity will have a much harder time overcoming issues that impact everybody like global warming, environmental decline, and our basic quality of life.
But creating green jobs, implementing universal health care coverage and improving transportation and education will be the keys to making 21st Century California economically stable and socially united.
Allow me to close with a quote from Robert F. Kennedy: “As long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.”