King's unfinished work

ASSOCIATED PRESS It's now 50 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, yet many troubling economic inequalities still persist.
ASSOCIATED PRESS It's now 50 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, yet many troubling economic inequalities still persist.
Posted: August 16, 2013

FIFTY YEARS AGO this month, on Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. led a March on Washington that focused in part on economic equality.

"The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity," King said that day.

Fifty years later, the income and wealth gap for minorities is still wide and troubling. The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, according to the Pew Research Center.

And the Great Recession didn't help an already bad situation. The average net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth-distribution chain increased 28 percent during the first two years of the recovery from the downturn, compared with a 4 percent drop for households in the lower 93 percent, according to Pew's analysis of data from the Census Bureau.

Another Pew report found that the decline in housing prices had a much greater impact on the net worth of minorities, relative to that of whites, because housing assumes a larger share of their portfolios.

The Urban Institute's Opportunity and Ownership Project recently issued a report that similarly examined the chasm separating the haves and the have-nots.

In 2010, the average income for whites was twice that of blacks and Hispanics - $89,000 vs. $46,000, and whites on average had six times the wealth of blacks and Hispanics - $632,000 compared with $103,000, according to the Urban Institute.

But it's the wealth gap that the authors of the report rightly focus on. Over the last 30 years, Americans in the top 20 percent saw their average wealth increase by nearly 120 percent, while families with wealth figures in the middle saw growth of 13 percent. The folks in the bottom 20 percent saw their net worth drop below zero, meaning their debts exceeded their assets.

"In hindsight, the organizers of the march were correct: Achieving rights without fully obtaining the resources to actualize them is only a partial victory. In this 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we can best pay tribute to the march and all that it stood for by recommitting to achieving its unfinished goals," wrote Algernon Austin, director of the Economic Policy Institute's Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy.

The institute has issued a series of reports examining what it would take to achieve each of the goals of the 1963 March on Washington. Go to unfinishedmarch.com to read the essays.

When I write about the economic state of minorities, I brace myself for the racist, vitriolic comments that follow. Highlighting economic inequalities isn't about asking for handouts. It's about finding ways to give people a hand up so that they can become self-sufficient. When the financial lives of the less fortunate are lifted, we all are lifted.

As King said in his "I Have a Dream" speech that summer day 50 years ago, we all have to realize that our destinies are tied up together. "We cannot walk alone," he said.

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