Revisiting the Dream

By James Jones, B.MORE Initiative Coordinator, NTJN 

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Source: National Archives

Doctor Martin Luther King’s role and legacy is often encapsulated as an advocate for racial equality under the law. However, what is often forgotten is that King’s advocacy for racial equality was inextricably linked to a call for economic justice and equality.  As we reflect on Doctor Martin Luther King Day this week we must ask ourselves: Have we achieved this dream?

From the 1960s to today, the black unemployment rate has been about 2 to 2.5 times the white unemployment rate, and also, nearly one in five black workers was unemployed at some point in 2013 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014). The 2012 unemployment rate for blacks was 14.0 percent, exceeding the rate during the Great Depression. (Economic Policy Institute, 2014).  Even more disturbing are the realities faced by many low-income minorities whose communities have virtually no access to quality education or sustainable employment options.  Unfair practices and policies in housing still restrict the vast majority of low-income blacks to live in areas with high concentrations of poverty and crime (Economic Policy Institute 2014).  Furthermore, U.S. incarceration rates have increased by 500% since the 1960s, leaving a large portion of our would-be workforce behind bars or barred from employment due to felony conviction (The Sentencing Project 2014).

“I’ve seen my dream shattered as I’ve walked the streets…and seen young men and women, with a sense of utter hopelessness because they can’t find any jobs.” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., July 4, 1964

The National Transitional Jobs Network (NTJN) is a national coalition dedicated to getting chronically unemployed Americans back to work.  Recognizing the clear need to improve employment opportunities and outcomes for low-income black men, the NTJN launched the B.MORE Initiative (“Black Men Overcoming Barriers and Realizing Employment”) in 2012 through generous support from the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement.  The B.MORE Initiative seeks to open doors to employment and economic advancement for low-income black men across the country through policy advocacy, coalition building, and resource creation.

We know that stable and sufficient income is essential to getting and maintaining housing, improving physical and mental health, maintaining healthy relationships, and ensuring the well-being of children and youth.  With unemployment soaring, now more than ever is the time to revisit King’s dream. It is time to push forward as a country and bring on another age of big ideas and sweeping social reforms that better reflect traditional American ideals such as equality and opportunity for all.  Integration of evidence-based and promising solutions that address the comprehensive needs of low-income, chronically unemployed parents and their families is critical to increasing economic opportunity, family stability, and healthy relationships.  It is particularly critical to implement strategies that combine opportunities to earn income with skill development including basic skills, occupational skills, and relationship skills.  Furthermore, renewed support for legislation such as the Second Chance Act is necessary to provide pathways to employment and successful reentry for America’s most vulnerable job-seekers: ex-offenders.  These types of solutions could also help to eliminate poverty clusters in minority neighborhoods by allowing people the opportunity to reengage with society, earn a living, and better support their families.

Even in the face of extreme political polarization, we can implement a bold approach to combating unemployment and poverty.  It is up to this generation to take up the torch and go to war with poverty and economic inequality once again.  In the past few decades, we have made significant progress as a nation in the struggle for equality; however, if we are truly going to strive to achieve the Dr. King’s dream, we must ensure that economic equality and opportunity are available for all people.

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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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