On Feb. 5, 1964 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Drew University in Madison, N.J. to give an address entitled “The American Dream”. Reading it in 2020, its impossible to ignore the prescience of his prophetic analysis. He touched on everything from the challenges of automation to the moral perils of ignoring poverty both here at home and around the world.
His grasp of our planetary interdependence offered us a half century ago the prism of a global citizenship, so necessary for us to be able to engage meaningfully on climate change.
In the address he laid out the underpinnings for his “Poor People’s Campaign” that aimed to draw attention to our nation’s vast wealth inequality and its effects not just on people of color, but on the country’s entire population.
Just a month earlier, Dr. King had been named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. Several months later FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would denounce him as “the most notorious liar in the country” and charge the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was “spear headed by communists and moral degenerates.”
A CONSCIENCE THAT CRIED OUT
He described for the students and faculty assembled the impact of a journey he had taken with his wife Coretta to India in 1959, where the severity of the poverty on the streets had greatly affected him.
“As I noticed these conditions, something within me cried out, ‘Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?’ And an answer came, ‘Oh, no, because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation. And I started thinking about the fact that we spend millions of dollars a day in America to store surplus food.
He continued. “And I started thinking about the fact that we spend millions of dollars a day in America to store surplus food. I said to myself, ‘I know where we can store that food free of charge, in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children in Asia and Africa and in South America.”
“And it may well be that we spend far too much of our national budget establishing military bases around the world rather than bases of genuine concern and understanding,” he reasoned.
Here at home he observed that “poverty, ignorance, social isolation, economic deprivation breed crime whatever the racial group may be” and warned it would be a “tortuous logic….to use the tragic results of segregation as an argument for the continuation of it. It is necessary to get to the causal basis.”
A PROPHET ON PROFITS
Three years later, his analysis in his last book “Where Do We Go From Here Chaos of Community” would take direct aim at unfettered capitalism itself.
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered,” wrote Dr. King. “A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy.”
As Vincent Harding recounts in his introduction to Dr. King’s seminal book in his lifetime the civil rights leader said “something is wrong with capitalism…there must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism…”
Since Dr. King’s death, wealth concentration and income disparity have become even more pronounced, not just for African American households but for the nation’s entire middle class. Its this issue which is emerging as the defining issue for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary field.
Back in May, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told a conference that the conveyor belt of American prosperity, that advanced one generation after another ever upward in terms of economic upward mobility, was broken.
IS CAPITALISM BROKEN?
Powell cited statistics that in the 1950s, more than 80 percent of kids born into middle-class families would go on to out earn their parents. In recent years, the Fed Chairman said only 50 percent do.
“The kind of generational improvements in living standards that were long the hallmark of the American middle class have steadily diminished,” Powell said.
Economists point to the 1970s, as the key inflection point when middle class households saw their wages remain flat and even decline, even as productivity spiked. In place of an increase in earned income, American households took on ever higher levels of household and student debt.
As the American middle class continued to collapse, things became even more dire for African American households who were particularly hit by the Great Recession and the foreclosure crisis which continues to playout in place like Newark and Atlantic City.
“The size of that wealth divide is sobering: the median African American household’s net worth is only $7,113, according to the Census Bureau, while the comparable figure for white households is $111,740,” according to an article entitled African American Economic Inequality-A 21st Century published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
Here in New Jersey almost 40 percent of the state’s families struggle month to month to cover their basic expense, according to the United Way’s ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained) report.
This celebration of MLK Day 2020 comes as the Democratic Party contest for its Presidential nomination is in full swing with the caucuses in Iowa, where the minimum wage is $7.25, are less than a month away.
A DEFINING QUESTION
So far, the field is defined by three subsets of candidates. There’s the Bloomberg-Steyer billionaire contingent, the moderate centrist wing led by former Vice President Joe Biden, and the “radical reformers” Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
While Sanders has unabashedly described himself as a democratic socialist, Warren describes herself as a capitalist that demands the markets “need to work for more than just the rich.”
Biden, like Warren and Sanders, favors raising the minimum wage to $15. Where there is a major divide is on the issue of health care. Biden favors improving on the President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, while Sanders and Warren embrace a universal health care model.
A substantial contingent of New Jersey Democrats who endorsed Sen. Cory Booker, are now free to make another endorsement. Former Booker booster Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-7), who worked in the State Department for the Obama Administration, has endorsed Biden.
Former Governor Richard Codey, who had been uncommitted, also endorsed the former Vice President. In his announcement he said that Biden could govern “a deeply divided country” and “work to make the American Dream attainable for all of us.”
There’s a kind of political irony that Sen. Booker, who in the past took some heat for being too close to big money on Wall Street, found himself squeezed off the Democratic debate stage by repentant billionaire Tom Steyer, one of the original investors in the controversial Xanadu Mall, aka the American Dream.