Assessing 'King's Prescription for Poverty' This week, we are observing the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Farai Chideya talks with economist Bill Spriggs about King's hard-fought plans for economic justice and how black America has fared since 1968.

Assessing 'King's Prescription for Poverty'

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. Forty years ago this week, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Friday, April 4th marks that tragic anniversary. All week, we at NEWS & NOTES will examine how Reverend King's live and death shaped America. In a few minutes, we'll talk about King's hard fought plans for economic justice and how black America has fared since 1968.

Along those lines, right now with us we've got with us Chanelle Clark. She's an employee of the City of Houston. She is a member of the Houston Organization of Public Employees, or HOPE, which is affiliated with major unions. Chanelle, why don't you start out by telling us what you do for a living and how you would describe your economic situation.

Ms. CHANELLE CLARK (Houston Organization of Public Employees): Hello, everyone. I'm happy to be here. I'm a proud city of Houston municipal employee. And actually, it was a - it was a bit of a struggle. Before things was rough, and you know, I've dealt with many situations and talked to many people about how low we were, you know, actually getting rated as far as other states goes, since we're one of the largest cities. So now we have a set precedents and today is a better day.

CHIDEYA: What do you mean how low? I mean, what are some of the struggles that particularly African-Americans in Houston have been dealing with over the years?

Ms. CLARK: Being 21 percent behind other states, it was actually like you know, an insult to the employees when have $243 million set aside, you know, for a rainy day, you know, why a piece of that couldn't go to the municipal employees.

CHIDEYA: So how successful was your group HOPE in getting more for the workers? I understand recently you had a negotiation.

Ms. CLARK: Yes. Negotiations, all this didn't come into play overnight, so every night, every meeting was a power struggle. We've actually achieved more than we had, you know, years ago. So now with the community and active, you know, community leaders, helped pave the way to get HOPE started.

CHIDEYA: Let me bring in Bill Spriggs. He is a professor and the chair at the Economics Department at Howard University. Hi, Bill.

Professor BILL SPRIGGS (Howard University): Hi.

CHIDEYA: So we are speaking with Chanelle Clark. She's an employee of the city of Houston. Now, her organization, called HOPE, just recently negotiated a contract, a three-year contract with 13,000 municipal workers. Some of the city workers, including park maintenance aides, library aides and custodians are working full time, earning less than $20,000, you know, or 20,500 per year. That's the federal poverty level for a family of four.

So when you think about people working full time and not making a living wage, what does that say about the state of the economy, not just in Houston but in America?

Prof. SPRIGGS: Well, it says a lot about our values and how we have drifted away from sort of basic values in this country. It's very appropriate to be talking with her this week because of course all of us are commemorating the 40th anniversary of Dr. King's assassination, and he was assassinated trying to organize public sector workers. He was organizing sanitation workers in Memphis who faced this same challenge.

Today, if you said to someone that they were a sanitation worker, you kind of think, well, that's kind of a decent job. But it wasn't always that way. People had to fight to make it that way. And unfortunately we still have people who mind our parks, mind our libraries, who aren't getting decent pay.

CHIDEYA: Chanelle, when you talk to people who are part of the Houston Organization of Public Employees, what do they think that they should be getting in terms of a living wage? I mean is there - is there a consensus about what people think they should be getting? And why do you think some people feel that they are underpaid?

Ms. CLARK: Well, actually, one of our lowest paid people were actually making $6.56 an hour. And based on that, working for the city, you know, way under, you know, $10 or more, as you see with other small states. And when you talk with them, you know, it's like working so hard and at the end of the day you should be able to see that on your paycheck. And in this case you don't, and that discourages people, makes them want to, you know, leave the city or say bad things because working for a large city like, you know, Houston, it's not much help.

CHIDEYA: What do you think now, 40 years after Rev. King's death, would change your life and the life of people who you work with?

Ms. CLARK: Well, this is, you know, being the pioneer for other states, this sets precedents on what he was conveying, and actually this is a great accomplishment. And now that we have this new HOPE union, everyone is proud and it's a welcoming union.

CHIDEYA: Well, Chanelle, I want to thank you for joining us and sharing your story with us.

Ms. CLARK: Thank you so much.

CHIDEYA: That was Chanelle Clark, an employee of the City of Houston and a member of the Houston Organization of Public Employees, or HOPE. And Bill, you're still with us, and I want to broaden this out a little bit. You recently co-authored a policy brief titled "Beyond the Mountain Top: King's Prescription for Poverty." What was the purpose and what did you really get into?

Prof. SPRIGGS: We wanted to remind people what Dr. King actually said and his actual economic policy for alleviating poverty. So I was joined by a co-author, Steven Pitts, who's an economist at the University of California, Berkeley's Labor Center, so we could lay out Dr. King's own words. And you know, it was great that you had Ms. Clark on because she talked about people who are working hard but couldn't support their families. And Dr. King understood that we have an economic system that generates poverty. And his critique was not of individuals, but of a system that would generate poverty.

And that's what we wanted to do, was to call back his words and to look at some of the things that have changed since his assassination that have actually made it harder for people to get out of poverty, even though they are hard-working. We have a lower minimum wage today than when he was assassinated. Ms. Clark talked about somebody making $6.85 an hour. When Dr. King was assassinated, that wage would have been illegal.

CHIDEYA: In today's dollars.

Prof. SPRIGGS: In today's dollars, it would have been illegal to pay somebody the equivalent of that wage. We have a lower unionization rate today than when Dr. King was assassinated. And so it takes courageous people like Ms. Clark that you talked with, who have to go out there and risk everything to try and organize and get people a voice about the way that they get paid. And of course we know as African-Americans that we haven't made as much progress as we did in that brief period in the '60s and early '70s in alleviating discrimination. The barriers still exist to us moving up the job ladder.

CHIDEYA: When you say discrimination, what do you mean? And the reason I say that is because there's outright discrimination, there's, you know, the sort of structural inequality that comes when people have gone to bad schools and can't qualify for jobs. There's all sorts of different factors. What are you really talking about when you use the word discrimination?

Prof. SPRIGGS: I'm using what you mean by outright; that is, discrimination with the actual marketplace. The unemployment rate for blacks and whites differs, even once you control for education. In fact, blacks with the same level of education are still roughly twice as likely to be unemployed. So blacks with college degrees are about twice as likely as whites with college degrees to be unemployed. Half the wage gap faced between blacks and whites have nothing to do with differences in education, occupation, region in which you live, membership in a union. It all goes back to differences and being treated differently for the same sets of skills. That still takes place in America. It's still prevalent in the United States.

CHIDEYA: If you were to apply Dr. King's economic agendas to America's economy today, what kinds of prescriptions might be offered or what might be put on the table as ways to change the economy?

Prof. SPRIGGS: Well, three easy things come to mind because they are so different today than when he was assassinated. First, of course, we mentioned the minimum wage, which while you look at the period from '64 to '68 when he was very active and fulfilling the dream of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the minimum wage actually went up in real terms. And today the minimum wage at the time of his assassination would be well over $7.00 an hour, higher than it is today.

Unionization rates would be higher. We would fix the broken labor laws we have in this country that make it so hard for workers to unionize. And the unemployment rate for African-Americans had reached a record low in 1968; that helped to lower black poverty while Dr. King was alive. Today the unemployment rate for black men is higher than it was in 1968. We have gone from an economy that thought it was bad to have unemployed people to an economy that thinks it's bad to have inflation.

And so we have carried out policies that have favored fighting inflation over fighting unemployment. So we would have to return to those policies and the importance of having full employment. While Dr. King was alive from '64 to '68, the poverty rate for black children plummeted from about 66 percent to 39 percent. That record of 39 percent stood for 27 years after his assassination. We didn't lower the poverty rate for black children until after 27 years had passed. And when you look at what we did to the minimum wage, what we did to unionization, what we did to unemployment, it's not a puzzle why the poverty rate wouldn't fall. Dr. King was clear. People have to have a job and it has to pay decently in order to fight poverty.

CHIDEYA: All right, Bill. We're going to have to keep this really tight, but I want to mention some news of the day. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alfonso Jackson announced he is stepping down. He is under criminal investigation for allegations of cronyism and favoritism with contractors. Is this going to have any effect on the housing market and some of the instability, the government's approach to that?

Prof. SPRIGGS: Well, it will take a while to piece together every piece of leadership at HUD. FHA isn't going to be as affected, but some of the other elements of HUD that are put in play right now to try and fight the problem we're having in the mortgage crisis, we'll have a problem without having somebody get their hit. Yeah so this will affect it a little bit.

CHIDEYA: All right, Bill. It was great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Prof. SPRIGGS: Thanks.

CHIDEYA: Bill Spriggs is the chair of the Department of Economics at Howard University and the co-author of "Beyond the Mountaintop: King's Prescription for Poverty." He joined us from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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