Forty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot down in Memphis, just as he was about to lead a new Poor People’s Campaign. King’s agenda had moved beyond civil rights to overcoming poverty in America, and he had just begun the new effort to challenge economic injustice.
At that time, in 1968, there were 25 million people in America living in poverty; 40 years later there are roughly 37 million people still living in poverty. In 1968, the minimum wage was worth $9.47 an hour in today’s dollars (using inflation-adjusted 2007 figures). The minimum wage today is $6.55. Forty-seven million Americans have no health insurance. In 2007, the number of home foreclosure filings rose to 2.2 million. The poor have lost ground.
But things are changing. God is on the move. Christians are rediscovering and embracing God’s concern for justice. The church is uniting across political and denominational lines around a shared commitment to fight poverty. A new moment is dawning.
Four years ago, Call to Renewal conducted a 12-day “Rolling to Overcome Poverty” bus tour to say that poverty was a religious and electoral issue. Despite our best efforts, the word “poverty” was rarely spoken in either campaign or in the 2004 presidential debates.
THIS YEAR, it’s already very different. For the first time in many years, poverty is back on the agenda. Two presidential candidates from both parties, Sen. John Edwards and Gov. Mike Huckabee, made poor and low-income working people a central priority in this election season. In Edwards’ campaign, he spoke eloquently about the reality of poverty in the United States and emphasized his commitment to cut poverty in the U.S. in half in 10 years.