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How to Make Progress toward Martin Luther King’s Promised Land

Algernon Austin

On April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “Mountaintop” speech that hinted at his death. King was in Memphis helping black male sanitation workers fight to obtain safe working conditions, decent wages, equal treatment with white workers, and recognition of their union. In his speech, King stated that God had allowed him to climb to the top of the mountain and look over to see the Promised Land. He concluded, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

At this time of the 50th anniversary of King’s “Mountaintop” speech, we have received a report from the Equality of Opportunity Project telling us that we are stalled on the road to the promised land of racial equality. In a thorough study of race and intergenerational income mobility, the Stanford economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues find that black families have essentially reached their steady state in terms of income mobility. While some black parents manage to achieve upward mobility, the forces pushing black children into poverty are so strong that the parents’ progress will be collectively undone by children falling down the economic ladder. For black families as a whole, their income deficit relative to white families will not change unless America does something radically different from what we have been doing over the past 50 years.

Chetty determines that the mobility challenge is gender-specific. Black males lag their white male peers; black females have the same rate of upward mobility as white females. If the black male upward-mobility rate matched the white male rate, black families’ upward mobility would match that of white families. The 3 key levers to increase black male upward mobility emerging from the research are to raise black boys in communities with low poverty rates, low levels of anti-black racial bias, and high rates of children living with their fathers in the neighborhood.

While the Chetty study is an excellent analysis of the problem, it is weak on identifying solutions. Below are 12 policy ideas to address the levers Chetty identified. If we want black boys to grow up in communities with low poverty rates we need to (1) protect and improve our safety net, (2) expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, and (3) make our tax policies more progressive. Our weak safety net in the United States reduces child poverty by less than half as much as the safety nets in most European countries.

Too many Americans are still unwilling to acknowledge the power of racism in American society. Chetty finds that racism significantly lowers the chances of black men obtaining a job and earning a good wage. As a first step in addressing this problem, we should (4) guarantee fair employment by strengthening and enforcing civil rights laws in the workplace.

Racism is also deeply embedded in our criminal justice system, and Chetty finds that anti-black racial animus in a community is correlated with higher black incarceration rates. We can begin to address this problem by (5) ensuring that everyone has access to an attorney, (6) investing in programs that address the root causes of crime and that reduce over-incarceration, and (7) decriminalizing poverty by ending the use of money bail and the excessive use of fines and fees by state and local governments. If we reduce the over-representation of black males in our criminal justice system, we will increase their chances of advancing economically.

With Chetty’s third lever—increasing the share of black children living with their fathers in neighborhoods—it is important to note that this is not about whether a child’s parents are married. It is about the child’s neighborhood, not the child’s family. We know that men who are stably employed in a good job that can support a family are more likely to marry. When more black men are financially secure, more black men will marry. We can circumvent some of the anti-black-male discrimination in the labor market by establishing (8) a guarantee of a public job with the federal government serving as the employer of last resort. We can create millions of jobs to address the low black employment rate by (9) investing in infrastructure. If we make certain that our infrastructure investments (10) sufficiently fund public transit, we would both create jobs for black men and increase black men’s access to jobs via transit. We can make sure that the jobs are good jobs that can support a family by (11) raising jobs standards including wages, and by (12) restoring workers’ freedom to negotiate at work through a union. There is a strong relationship between unionization rates and income inequality. When unions were stronger, the American working class was more economically secure, and the marriage rates of non-college educated men were much higher than they are today.

These 12 policy ideas are taken from Demos’ Everyone’s Economy: 25 Policies to Lift Up Working People. The goals that King and the black male sanitation workers were fighting for 50 years ago are all addressed by policies within Everyone’s Economy. When King and the workers fought for good jobs, decent wages, fair treatment, and union representation, they were fighting for key elements to lift up black men, black families, and, ultimately, American society.