A Half-Century Later We Keep Deferring MLK’s Dream Instead of Billions In EDA Tax Breaks Provide College Debt Relief

This Martin Luther King Day Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate Majority Leader Stephen M. Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin can take some pride in their deal that paves the way for a $15 minimum an hour wage by 2024. Yet, some of the details of the deal are disappointing, like the cut out for farm workers who will only see their wages go up to $12.50 that same year. 

No doubt, it would be these farm workers, who are people of color, would also be championed by Martin Luther King Jr., whose last campaign in Memphis was on behalf of striking municipal sanitation workers in Memphis.  

Traditionally, the annual  MLK’s holiday is a time when we reflect on the progress we have made on the social agenda  that King gave his life to advance. The election  and re-election of Barack Obama to the nation’s highest office is invariably cited as tangible evidence of that progress.

But in terms of two major King priorities, curbing American militarism and advancing economic justice, things are arguably worse today than they were when he left this early plane. 

The U.S. continues to spend hundreds of billions dollars of borrowed money on our military, even though we no longer have a super power opponent and post 9/11 we are in a perpetual state of 

war that  remains undeclared.

And, when it comes to economic justice the United States, and New Jersey in particular, continue to set new records for income disparity and wealth concentration.  A recent Federal Reserve survey found that 40 percent of American households would have to sell something or borrow money to cover an emergency $400 medical or car repair bill.

Research by the  Economic Policy Institute shows our country saw a seismic shift in wealth concentration trends five years after KIng’s murder. From 1928 until 1973,  the percentage of income  held by the top one percent declined in almost all states as the U.S.celebrated an unprecedented expansion of the middle class.

In the 46 years since 1973, the share of national income has been increasing for the one percent, with that trend of wealth concentration has been accelerating  even faster since the Great Recession. 

Years after the Great Recession, Wall Street’s un-prosecuted predations cost Americans $20 trillion of household wealth and several million American families lost their homes. The impact was the worst for  African-American households with foreclosures taking a heavy toll that will have generational consequences. 

Trenton’s $15 an hour wage deal is one small incremental step in the right direction. According to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a non-profit progressive think tank, Trenton Democrats delivering on their $15 an hour commitment will have a major upside for one million workers. That will, in turn, lift up the daily existence of millions of family members, other adults and children, who will all be linked to those bigger paychecks. 

For the workers who will hit the $15 mark it will still take five years to get there, and for poor and working class families on the lower end of the pay scale that’s an eternity.

Even the $15 an hour doesn’t go far enough.  New Jersey Policy Perspectives estimates a New Jersey family with one child needs a wage of $20.07 an hour to make ends meet. According to the non-profit think tank there’s quite a range between the state’s 21 counties— from $17.32 an hour for workers in Camden to $22.26 in Hunter-don. 

According to the United Way, of the  more than 200,000 households in New Jersey that are headed by a woman, 37 percent live below poverty, while 39 percent struggle week to week,  leaving fewer than one in four that are making it. 

Close to 40 recent of our state’s households are either living below poverty or struggling week to week to make ends meet. In our state the top one percent average $1.58 million a year in income compared to $65,000 for 99 percent of the state’s households. 

In Dr. King’s last book before he was murdered, Where Do We Go From Here; Chaos or Community , he wrote of the social imperative of confronting poverty.  “A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look at thousands of working people displaced from their jobs with reduced incomes as a result of automation while the profits of the employers remain intact, and say: “This is not just.” It will look across the oceans and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” 

He continued,  “There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer. There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum—and livable—income for every American family.”

Even today, a half century after Dr. King wrote these words his concept of a universal income, which ironically was also supported by former President Richard Nixon, would be considered radical. 

It is a bottom up approach of establishing a broad based economic well being that seems so antithetical to the way we do things today  like cutting taxes on the wealthiest households and largest corporations. 

It extends to how we approach our state’s economic development. Our approach, as recently documented by a  New Jersey’s Comptroller audit, is to shovel out billions of dollars in tax credits and incentives to well connected individuals and companies and then not keep track of what happens.

To those that much is already given, we want to give them more, as evidenced by Newark and the State of New Jersey’s $7 billion inducements to Amazon, a trillion dollar company, with a mixed labor record. 

In essence, this approach shifts the tax burden away from favored corporations and puts it on households and small businesses who have to make up for the taxes the favored corporations are not paying.

And we are shocked at our nation and state’s obscene wealth concentration? 

What if instead of trying to give that money to Amazon we used it to provide New Jersey student debt relief? 

PHOTO CREDIT: Debra Sabatini Hennelly

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