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Last Week in Poverty: The Unfinished March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

A new report offers a compelling look at the economic vision that was laid out during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and how it has since been forgotten.

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“[African-Americans] must march from the rat-infested, overcrowded ghettos to decent, wholesome, unrestricted residential areas disbursed throughout our cities…. They must march from the play areas in crowded and unsafe streets to the newly opened areas in the parks and recreational centers,” said Whitney Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League.

When I read those words this week, I thought it sounded like a good recommendation for residents of my hometown, Washington, DC, which has in essence been two separate and unequal cities since my great grandparents came here in the 1920s—and it remains so today.

But Young said this at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, exactly fifty years ago on August 28. A new  report from the Economic Policy Institute, “The Unfinished March—An Overview,” offers a compelling look at the economic vision that was laid out on that day and has since been forgotten. It also examines the continuing struggle to achieve that vision.

Most Americans associate the March with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech and celebrate the victories of the civil rights movement that followed. But report author Algernon Austin, director of EPI’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy (PREE), writes that there were “nine other speeches that day” and that the march organizers called for “decent housing, adequate and integrated education, a federal jobs program for full employment, and a national minimum wage of over $13.00 an hour in today’s dollars.”

Where do we stand today in meeting those goals?

There are still ghettos of poverty that lack decent housing—where poor minority children don’t have the same access to resource-rich, middle-class communities as poor white children do. Nearly half of poor African-American children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, defined as areas where 30 percent of the census tract population lives below the federal poverty threshold (on less than $18,000 for a family of three). In contrast, only 12 percent of poor white children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. (Thirty-nine percent of poor American Indian children live in areas of concentrated poverty, as do 35 percent of poor Hispanic children and 21 percent of poor Asian and Pacific Islander children.)

Austin describes how concentrated poverty is correlated “with a host of social and economic challenges,” including: higher crime rates, higher exposure to lead, higher prevalence of alcohol and fast food outlets and fewer opportunities to be physically active due to crime and limited green space. All of these factors make the struggle to rise from poverty significantly harder.

Relatedly, Austin points to the call by speakers at the March “for black children to gain access to adequate and integrated education.”

“[We] must march from the congested ill-equipped schools, which breed dropouts, and which smother motivation, to the well-equipped integrated facilities throughout the cities,” argued Young at the March.

But today we have public schools that are essentially separate and unequal. 74 percent of African-Americans still attend majority nonwhite schools, compared to just over 76 percent in the late 1960s. That number had dropped down to 63 percent by the early 1980s, but Austin suggests that progress reversed due to a “lack of commitment by the federal government and multiple decisions by the Supreme Court.” The share of black children in schools that are 90 to 100 percent nonwhite has also stagnated at around 38 percent since the early 2000s.

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