During his lifetime, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that the civil rights movement and the labor movement had to remain firmly united. He understood that there can be no real equality without economic security and that government must play a role in protecting our most vulnerable.
Dr. King had gone to Memphis, the city of his assassination, to preach that no job holder should live in poverty. Before the bullet struck him, he had joined striking sanitation workers to march for living wage jobs and a union contract.
It is hard to imagine that he would not be angered to see how little real progress we have made since then. Today almost 1 in 3 working families nationally are low-income, according to an analysis of the latest available Census data by the Working Poor Families Project. Many of these working families reside in communities of color.
The core issue now affecting many workers, and the unemployed who hope to find work, is the issue that animated King in his final hours: too many jobs barely allow people to survive. They go to work each day and still live in poverty. More than forty years later, the need for living wage jobs is as urgent as ever.
The urgency is very clear in a place like New York City, where a record number of working residents, nearly 1.8 million, now rely on food stamps just to get by. Many of them hold jobs in rapidly expanding sectors like retail where companies and developers often receive large taxpayer-provided subsidies and create low-wage jobs in return. But an economy with a growing number of impoverished workers is unsustainable and destructive: more workers will turn to government for help, strain already overburdened public services, contribute less to the tax base, and increase the shared costs of poverty.
A better way forward is to ensure that private beneficiaries of public investments act in the best interest of communities and neighborhoods where they are located. From Baltimore to Los Angeles and beyond, cities have begun to require companies and developers receiving taxpayer subsidies to create jobs that enable people to be self-sufficient and avoid destitution. New York City and the rest of the country should follow suit.
Establishing a living wage standard for economic development and growth strikes the right balance for our communities and neighborhoods. When companies and developers benefit from government support, they should provide something in return – jobs that allow people to live in dignity.
“It was no victory for black men to be allowed to sit in a formerly white-only theater or to rent hotel accommodations which had been segregated, when they had no jobs,” the historian Manning Marable has written. “It was cruel to permit black children to sit in all-white schools, when their mothers had no money to provide for their lunches.” All the marching and organizing during Dr. King’s lifetime was meant to build economic empowerment and security for millions of workers in this country.
Using the language of his time, King once put it like this: “Negroes are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires, and few Negro employers… Our needs are identical with labor’s needs–decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing… conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”
Dr. King’s legacy of standing up for the working poor animates the growing living wage movement in this country. It is the nexus where the labor movement and the civil rights movement must come together.