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Monday, January 20th, 2014 by

Today is the MLK holiday, although in Alabama the adoption of the holiday passed the legislature only by designating it as also being in honor of the birth of Robert E. Lee, who coincidentally shares the same birth week as King, so that white state workers taking the day off didn’t have to do so in tribute to civil rights.

Setting aside that head-in-the-sand Alabama political posturing, it is MLK Day, which means it’s a good day to remember that though MLK is rightly celebrated as a leader of the movement which broke the back of legalized segregation, toward the end of his life he was mostly campaigning to end economic injustice and war (at the time, in Vietnam). And while the civil rights movement was relatively straightforward — Jim Crow laws were an obvious evil — and gained the support of government, business, and, for the most part, the public, the same support was not forthcoming for anti-poverty and anti-war efforts.

For one thing, poverty and war have complex causes that are not easy to identify, much less target. For another, while changes in the U.S. economy and infrastructure had largely eliminated the economic benefits to white Southerners of first slavery and then segregation, there remained/remain powerful interests who profited from poverty and war.

The poverty part of that profit equation is hard for some to swallow, though I believe the case can be made. Consider the hugely profitable low-end loan, check cashing, rent-to-own furniture, etc., businesses that prey on the poor. Consider the prison-industrial complex that has expanded alongside the increased incarceration rates of the poor. Consider the increased numbers of well-paid and well-pensioned judges, prosecutors, police, and support personnel, and all the suppliers and manufacturers of their furnishings and consumables needed to keep a lid clamped on the “criminal” poor.

The military part of the profit equation is more obvious; even President Dwight D. Eisenhower, our last five-star commander in chief, famously warned of this danger, but we just keep spending and spending.

But back to the poor, and the impetus for my taking up your time today …

The NYT has recently been running a good series, “The Great Divide,” about the country’s return to Gilded Age levels of income inequality. Reading the NYT this morning, I was struck by today’s entry about the results of a study by an epidemiologist examining linkage between poverty and mental health. Her conclusions seem to indicate that — surprise — giving poor people money improves their lives and saves the taxpayers money. I suppose this is the academic equivalent of the folk wisdom that money can’t buy happiness, but the absence of money does buy misery. And the societal costs of misery are high.

As Congress dithers on extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, and is likely to pass a Farm Bill that will further cut food stamps even while subsidies continue to agribusiness, it seems a good time to think about policies that might actually help the poor and the country.

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