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We Need a New 'War on Poverty' – Not a War on the Poor

Amid growing income and wealth disparity in our country, we should rededicate ourselves to Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of economic justice and to helping those who are falling through the cracks in society.

As I sit in my office looking out at the church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached during the civil rights movement, I’m reminded of something he said that addressed longstanding attitudes about the plight of America’s poor.

“It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps,” Dr. King said, “but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” 

His words are particularly relevant today – 50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty. Johnson’s initiatives have helped millions of Americans, including our senior citizens, stay afloat by providing a floor of support for nutrition, health care, and other basic necessities.

But today, during a period of income and wealth disparity not seen in nearly a century, what we’re seeing is not a war on poverty, but rather a war on the poor.

We’re being told by many politicians and pundits on the right – as they seek to shred our country’s safety net – that the poor, in effect, deserve their fate, that the jobless are lazy and don’t want to work, that immigrants come to our shores for handouts, and that the sick and the elderly should fend for themselves.

Meanwhile – as economic gains increasingly flow to the rich – poor and middle-class Americans are falling further behind. In 2012, for instance, the wealthiest 10 percent earned more than half of all income.

Something is terribly wrong – and getting worse. As the Associated Press recently put it, “The gulf between the richest 1 percent and the rest of America is the widest it’s been since the Roaring ‘20s.”

At the SPLC, we’ve always been concerned about poverty. Indeed, it’s in our name – the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In the earlier days, we fought in the courts to help poor, minority communities get their fair share of public resources and services. More recently, we’ve represented some of the country’s most marginalized people – the exploited migrant workers and immigrants who labor in our fields to put food on our tables.

Right now, we are fighting for disadvantaged children in Alabama’s impoverished Black Belt region who are trapped in failing schools while the state provides tax breaks to families that are able to send their children to private or successful public schools.

Our mission is to be there for those who have no other champion.

At the time of his assassination, Dr. King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers and was organizing a “Poor People’s Campaign” to call attention to poverty and economic injustice.

Today, we need to rededicate ourselves to Dr. King’s dream of economic justice and to helping those who are “bootless” in our country. America, he said, has “the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”