We've largely achieved his goal of abolishing poverty

Martin Luther King was undoubtedly a great man, a Great Man even. He was also flawed as all humans are and ever will be. When discussing him though it’s worth actually understanding what it is that he was calling for and how far we’ve come in reaching those targets. I’d not even attempt to argue that the US is as colour blind as he hoped it would be but I’d insist that it’s vastly better today than it was back then. Equally, when discussing his hopes, demands, about poverty and matters economic we really must acknowledge how far we’ve come.

Something in desperately short supply I’m afraid as most of the people doing said discussing are simply ignorant on the subject of poverty. Take this at Salon:

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, while fighting for a 10-cent wage increase for garbage workers. These efforts by King were part of a broader and more sustained initiative known as the Poor People’s Campaign.

King was working to broaden the scope of the civil rights movement to include poverty and the end of the war in Vietnam. King and his leadership team planned to bring thousands of poor people to Washington, D.C., where they would camp out on the National Mall until Congress passed legislation to eradicate poverty.

King was convinced that for the civil rights movement to achieve its goals, poverty needed to become a central focus of the movement. He believed the poor could lead a movement that would revolutionize society and end poverty.

OK, I too think it would be a great idea to eliminate poverty. I would argue that we actually have in reference to any global or historical meaning of that word poverty even if all too many don’t want to think about it that way. But I do insist that we must measure what we’ve already achieved in that elimination:

MLK’s vision matters today for the 43 million Americans living in poverty

There aren’t 43 million Americans living in poverty you see?

With over 43 million people living in poverty in the United States today, King’s ideas still hold much power.

It’s simply not true. And the reason it’s not true is because everyone did indeed listen to King, agree that alleviating, possibly eliminating, poverty was a really great idea. And it’s one that the US spends some $ trillion or so a year attempting to do as well. The only problem being that we don’t count that trillion as alleviating poverty when we go out to measure poverty.

No, really, this is true. We have a measure for what poverty is. Then we give people in poverty lots of stuff. And then we ignore all of what we’ve just given them and shout that they’re still in poverty!

Joshua F.J. Inwood
Associate Professor of Geography Senior Research Associate in the Rock Ethics Institute, Pennsylvania State University

We’d hope that an academic would know this but apparently not.

In detail the American poverty line is the cost of a simple but adequate diet, as worked out in the early 1960s (Molly Orshansky being the author of it), adjusted for household size and upgraded for inflation since then. That’s how we get that cash income number which is the poverty line. But here’s the important point – it’s only that cash income. It doesn’t include anything that comes as goods or services and it also doesn’t include anything happening through the tax system. So, it will include, in that estimation of cash income which puts you above or below the poverty line, any cash welfare payments anyone gets. But it doesn’t include Medicaid, the EITC, SNAP (food stamps), Section 8 housing vouchers, free cellphones or anything at all that isn’t just straight cash. And the US spends $1 trillion or so, certainly no less than $800 billion, on those poverty alleviation programs each year. That poverty alleviated which we don’t count when we count the number of people who are still poor, still living in poverty.

Just to illustrate the effects of this when we measure child poverty we see that some 20% of American children are living in families below the poverty line. When we add back in the value of all that poverty alleviation we do then the percentage falls to perhaps 2% of American children living in poverty.

That is, we’ve got to recognise, at least we damn well should, that the US has largely achieved Martin Luther King’s aim and desire of abolishing poverty. It’s only that we don’t count what has been done. And anyone, even an Associate Professor of Geography, who tells us that there are 43 million Americans living in poverty is spouting dangly bits, great big hairy ones to boot.

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11 COMMENTS

    • My bad. http://rockethics.psu.edu – Does not pertain to geography or geology but to the entire College of Arts and Science, so Rock must have been a donor not a rock.

      Upcoming: Junaid Rana on “Anthropology and the Riddle of White Supremacy” – “This talk explores how social science disciplines such as anthropology have addressed the concepts of racism and white supremacy. Drawing on the exchange published as A Rap on Race between anthropologist Margaret Mead and writer James Baldwin that pitted them between racial liberalism and a critique of white supremacy, I focus on how their discussion highlighted religion and moral belief as integral concepts related to racism. In the Mead and Baldwin conversation, the connection of Christianity to white supremacy reveals a complex conjuring of Islam and Muslims that I describe as racecraft, and that have implications for how we continue to theorize and study white supremacy and racism.”

  1. The use of people as Victims of Poverty even after their poverty has been relieved is a fallacy that deserves rebuttal every time it is trotted out.

    But no, everyone did not agree that eliminating poverty was a great idea, any more than eliminating pedestrians who are on the south side of the street. Because at least some of those individuals are where they are as a result of personal decisions, and a few are poor because of misconduct, and we cannot eliminate their poverty by rulebook without thereby rewarding their misconduct.

    Although Dr. King dabbled in leftie redistribution and Communism, what we remember him for is I Have a Dream and his other expressions of hopes that blacks would assimilate and take their place as full Americans. Instead, we now have universities granting majors in Grievance Studies, and the public education system giving 7-year-olds coursework in White Privilege: the lesson that everything good that happens to them is a result of something bad being done to nonwhites.

    • In a free society you don’t force anyone to assimilate, i.e. to accept other values. This also means that you don’t force other groupings to accept those who don’t want to assimilate. But that’s in a free society.

  2. In my day, Geography students were the ones who hadn’t been permitted to do History or Physics and aspired to become Town Planners. That’s Theresa May explained. What about the Rock Ethics guy and Danny Dorling?

  3. We will always be measuring poverty as a relative state. Otherwise, a lot of the good and great, and their hangers-on will be out of a job. A lot of lefty politicians will lose a campaigning point. So I don’t expect the current measure to change any time soon.

    • OP’s point was not that half the population will always be below average, but that, if you find a poor person and lift him up, it is deceptive to continue to portray him as a poor person! But, as you say, politicians will lose a campaigning point, if we were to also ban deception.