“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.
When we think of Martin Luther King Jr. — as we should, not only today but throughout the year — we most often think of him in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Selma. Birmingham. The 1963 March on Washington, his voice reverberating across the National Mall with a cry to “let freedom ring.”
That voice was also a powerful instrument in the fight against poverty. In the months before he was assassinated, Dr. King’s attention turned increasingly to the Poor People’s Campaign, which he saw as the crucial next phase of the struggle for equality. He described it as “the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.”
In his earliest writings, he voiced his concern about unemployment and economic insecurity. Later, his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize address singled out poverty as “one of the most urgent items on the agenda of modern life.” The drive to bring an end to poverty underpinned much of his work.
Not long ago, I watched one of Dr. King’s speeches, given at Stanford University less than a year before his death. Called “The Other America,” it focuses on poverty — and its message really hit home.
One America, Dr. King says, is “overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity.” The other America “constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.” In this other America, too many are “perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
In thinking about these words, I’m struck by how little things have changed since 1967 — and by how much work we still have to do today.
As the head of an organization whose stated vision is “a country free of poverty where no older person feels vulnerable,” I spend most of my days thinking and talking about solutions that can restore the “buoyancy of hope” to older adults who struggle to meet their income, housing and nutritional needs. Even as we help them summon the resilience and the resources to retain or regain their footing, the inescapable fact is that much of their vulnerability is rooted in poverty — a persistent, widespread national illness that demands both treatment of its symptoms and a cure for its root causes.
It’s easy to see poverty as someone else’s problem, relegated to underrepresented populations and communities of color. But poverty is an American problem — no less so in 2017 than it was in 1967.
As a nation, we mustn’t lose sight of the millions of our fellow Americans at the lower end of the economic scale, so many of whom are older adults, facing severe challenges and heart-wrenching choices about which basic need they can meet today — and which they will have to forgo.
These are people who spent years feeding their families, pursuing the American Dream. Their predicament now is not their fault. It shouldn’t be their future.
At AARP Foundation, we have our own initiatives to develop long-term, lasting solutions. But curing poverty requires a national communal effort, and a change in mindset that Dr. King was pointing us toward 50 years ago.
In his last major speech, delivered four days before he died, he said, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”
This year, as you remember Dr. King, I encourage you to consider how we, collectively, can build the will to end poverty in America once and for all.
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