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Dr. King and the Dream of Full Employment—Viewpoints

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Dr. King and the Dream of Full Employment

by Jared Bernstein

Thirty-two years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. launched the “Poor People’s Campaign,” a far-reaching plan to lift the economic conditions of underprivileged Americans of all classes and races. At the heart of the campaign was the progressive demand for full employment – that the opportunity to secure jobs be extended to all in order to lift people above, as King termed, “the curse of poverty.”

Most economists would characterize the current economy as being at or close to full employment. At 4.3 percent, the overall labor market is considered quite “tight” and as hiring queues have thinned, employers have had to offer wage increases to even low-wage workers, a group whose pay had been falling steeply for decades. Contemporary economic conditions thus represent an excellent test for Dr. King’s last platform.

Some of the recent trends have clearly benefited minorities. In particular, African-Americans have made unparalleled gains, helping to lessen economic disparities with whites. Yet, even with recent progress, overall economic circumstances for minorities have scarcely improved since Dr. King’s death in 1968.

Look, for example, at the state of median family income, a key indicator of how well the typical middle class family is faring. In 1968, the income of the typical black family was 60 percent that of whites. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s income grew slowly at the median, and more gradually for blacks than for whites. By 1989, the income gap between the two groups had widened to a ratio of 56 percent. Since 1989, however, thanks in part to the movement toward full employment, the largest income gains have gone to blacks, whose inflation-adjusted median income grew by 9 percent.

As of 1997 (the latest year for available income data) the ratio stood at 61 percent. For all the progress of the past few years, the income gap has closed by all of one point – from 60 to 61 percent – since 1968.

The poverty statistics tell a similar story. White poverty actually increased since 1989, particularly among children, while the black child poverty rate declined. Between 1989 and 1997, the share of poor white children rose from 14.8 percent to 16.1 percent while the black child poverty rate fell from 43.7 percent to 37.2 percent.

These statistics clearly show that gains are accruing to minorities in the current recovery and validate Dr. King’s point about the expected benefits of full employment. But they just as clearly reveal the magnitude of the challenge. While we applaud the gains in child poverty just noted, we bemoan the fact that more than one-third of black children are spending their formative years in economic privation. The curse of poverty is far from lifted.

How can such disparities exist with unemployment at 4.3 percent? The answer is twofold. First, the condition of “full employment” does not imply employment for all. Even with the overall tight labor market, certain groups of disadvantage workers face unemployment rates many times the national rate. For example, in 1998, close to 20 percent of young, black women with high-school degrees were unable to find work.

Second, the age-old legacy of discrimination continues to permeate our culture. Even among those who would like to believe, contrary to available evidence, that the playing field is now level, few would deny that years of unequal treatment have generated huge race-based economic gaps. One of the most incontrovertible indicators of this reality is the black/white wealth gap. Despite the booming stock market, the most recent data show that the financial assets of the typical black family is about zero, while that of the typical white family is $19,000.

The current boom will have to continue uninterrupted for many more years in order to make further progress against these racial disparities. Dr. King would certainly recognize and applaud the gains made in the full employment economy of the last few years. But taken in their historical context, he would just as surely point out that we have far to go before we arrive at his vision of economic justice.


Jared Bernstein is an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. He specializes in labor markets and wage inequality and is a co-author of State of Working America 1998-99.

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