How did underprivileged become targets of contempt? FWD

Tom Boland (
Wed, 27 May 1998 16:01:40 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  May 24, 1998 - Pioneer Press   Malveaux is a Washington economist. She
wrote this column for the Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main St.,
Madison, Wis. 53703. Distributed for the project by KRT News Service.

     Julianne Malveaux - commentator

Thirty years ago, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy led caravans of people all
over the country to Washington, D.C., in the Poor People's March to protest
poverty and racial discrimination. Abernathy had picked up the baton from
Martin Luther King Jr., but who has picked up the baton from Abernathy?

A generation ago, it was possible to rally people to the nation's capital
on such issues, but today poor people have become the targets of our
nation's contempt.

How else do we explain the congressional reluctance to increase the minimum
wage by just a dollar an hour? Business critics say that an increase from
$5.15 to $6.15 an hour would be inflationary and cause job loss. But with a
soaring stock market, and falling prices in some sectors, there is no
better time to increase wages. The 10 million Americans -- mostly women,
disproportionately household heads, disproportionately black and brown --
would see their quality of life increase with increased wages.

Our national hostility to the poor may also explain why the availability of
housing for poor people has shrunk in the past decade. Federal subsidies
for affordable housing have declined, and while the number of families that
need rent subsidies is rising, the number of low-rent apartments has been

Some 5 million families -- a third of low-income families -- spend more
than half of their incomes on rent. These families are struggling despite
the low unemployment rates we keep reading about. Why? Because jobs are
plentiful for those who are willing to work for low wages, but more scarce
for those who demand a living wage.

Our nation has moved 180 degrees away from the direction Martin Luther King
and Ralph Abernathy were pointing toward. Then, we were alarmed that so
many of our children lived in poverty. Now, the fact that a quarter of our
nation's kids are poor, and that an even greater number fall asleep with
empty stomachs at the end of the month, does not seem to disturb us.

Have our hearts hardened to photographs of homeless and hungry children, or
have we convinced ourselves that their distress is a preventable,
``personal'' problem?

Have we become so smug about economic expansion that we have failed to note
increasing requests for emergency food and shelter in our nation's largest

Have we decided that rallies, protests and other mass actions cannot
eradicate society's inequities, or have we become so weary that we aren't
willing to try anymore?

Those who repudiate the vision of the Poor People's March are all too eager
to quote King when he said that he looked forward to the day people are
judged by the ``content of their character not the color of their skin.''
They forget that King did not travel to Memphis, Tenn., in April 1968 to
increase character content. He risked his life to increase the wages of the
lowest-paid workers in Memphis: garbage workers.

Remember, King said that poverty was as much ``an abomination as
cannibalism at the dawn of civilization.'' And when he accepted the Nobel
Peace Prize, he said: ``I have the audacity to believe that people
everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and
culture for their minds, peace and freedom for their spirits.'' Amen.

King had the ire and the fire for dozens of Poor People's Marches. It is we
who have dropped the baton.


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