Week thirty-SIX  
Poverty  Since MLK

As we look toward commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's death, it is important to look at the status of economic equity in the last 50 years, since that was his critical focus towards the end of his life.  THE POVERTY REPORT: MEMPHIS SINCE MLK details how African Americans and the poor have fared in Memphis and Shelby County over the past 50 years much like "The Kerner Report" did 50 years ago. Many things have changed for minorities in America; some for the better, and some for the worse.

Lead researcher, Elena Delavega,  PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Memphis, shares her views of the findings.

Mirr oring much of what is seen nationally, here are some of the key findings of the Memphis " Poverty Report" :
  1. The childhood poverty rate for African American children is more than four times greater than that for whites.
  2. The rate of poverty for African Americans in 2016 has fallen from its peak in 1960. However, African American poverty rates are two and a half times higher than that of whites.
  3. Bachelor's degree achievement for African Americans has also increased from 1.2% in 1950 to nearly 20% in 2016.
  4. Median income for African Americans has stubbornly remained at approximately 50% of income for whites for the past half century.
  5. The incarceration rate for African Americans has increased 50% since 1980, while the incarceration rate for whites has fallen slightly. This local data also mirrors the national data for incarceration rates. 
Despite gains in education and increased participation in the white-collar labor market (a 650% increase), African Americans still lag behind whites in income and are overrepresented in poverty. This means that though there are greater opportunities, the outcomes for those same opportunities vary based on race. Poverty for African Americans in Shelby County is three times that of whites, and median income for African Americans has remained at about half that of whites through the decades. More troubling, the percent of African Americans who are institutionalized (criminal and otherwise) is now double that of institutionalized whites.  1

Unfortunately, the Memphis report parallels what is seen across the nation in other urban centers and the persistent, if not widening, economic disparity along racial lines over 50 years.

After the summer riots of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disobedience to find out why there was racial unrest in urban areas and what could be done to remedy it.  On March 1, 1968, the unexpected findings, known as "The Kerner Report," concluded that unjust housing practices, an unfair justice system and social service policies, unemployment, inadequate educational opportunities and overall economic disparity were the root cause of frustration not only in urban areas but, for those most affected-the poor-for all Americans. 2

Since the late 1960s, the percentage of American children living in poverty has increased, income inequality and the wealth gap have widened, and segregation has crept back into schools and neighborhoods.

"Racial and ethnic inequality is still with us. It's a real problem and it is worsening," said Fred Harris, a surviving member of the panel known as the Kerner Commission, which was named for chairman, Otto Kerner Jr., who was then governor of Illinois.  3

Fred Harris, seated third from right, is the only surviving member of the Kerner Commission, created by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 to investigate the causes of racial unrest and to find solutions to the problems.
Fred Harris (seated third from right) is the only surviving member of the Kerner Commission, created by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 to investigate the causes of racial unrest and to find solutions to the problems. Harris is a former U.S. senator from Oklahoma and professor emeritus of political science at the University of New Mexico. (Courtesy of Fred Harris)

Today, a report called "Healing Our Divided Society" released by the Eisenhower Foundation suggests that infrastructure spending to create jobs and programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit have helped lift families out of poverty. The report also calls for increases in the minimum wage, pay equity for women, and providing more work permits and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. We must also examine solutions to inclusive economic growth on the local and state level in areas where federal aid is not provided.

  1. "The Poverty Report: Memphis Since MLK," by Dr. Elena Delavega. National Civil Rights Museum with University of Memphis Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. February 27, 2018. 
  2. The Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disobedience, March 1, 1968. The Eisenhower Foundation.
  3. "Fifty years after the Kerner Commission, a new report cites some of the same concerns about race and poverty," by Vanessa Williams. The Washington Post. February 26, 2018.
Combatting Poverty
  1. Read Fred Harris' and Alan Curtis' Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years after the Kerner Report which provides solutions to the racial and economic divide in America today.
  2. Watch the recorded panel discussion at the National Civil Rights Museum's Poverty Forum to hear ideas that can impact cities like Memphis. 
  3. Read the "Top 10 Solutions to Cut Poverty and Grow the Middle Class" posted by the Center for American Progress.


Are you working towards decreasing the economic and racial divide in your community? How are you combatting poverty? Tell us how you are making a difference.  Share your story.