Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

In the Reader this week, we recognize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on its 50th anniversary. The march on Aug. 28, 1963, drew attention to the deep and long-standing hardship of blacks, and the great chasm between the quality of life for white and black Americans.

Another 50th anniversary is approaching, of an event that related directly to the issues that Martin Luther King Jr. and the march highlighted. In January it will be 50 years since Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty.

Johnson did so in his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964. “Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope,” Johnson told Congress and the nation, “some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

It would not be “a short or easy struggle,” Johnson went on. “No single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

In truth, the war would of course be conditional, as Johnson surely knew. Like all government acts, it was conditional on politics, which is to say it was conditional on what the electorate would support and fund. And the electorate was not willing to spend what it took. So it was not an easy struggle, but it was short. The sad fact is that the richest nation on earth can afford to lose a war on poverty.

More accurately, the richest nation on earth can afford not to fight such a war—for it never has, not even in the 60s. Declaring the war helped Johnson deliver crucial social programs—Head Start, Medicaid, Medicare, the Food Stamp Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But initiatives targeting the problems of urban ghettos had barely begun before they lost their funding. “Right now, we don’t even have a skirmish on poverty,” King said in 1968.

The costly Vietnam War was partly responsible, but money wasn’t the key issue. The federal government spared little money in helping whites flee to suburbs—it subsidized highways and infrastructure and home purchases. Maybe the nation would have been more committed to the poor neighborhoods left behind if the poor hadn’t been so disproportionately black.

An Occupy Wall Street protester in New Yorks Zucotti Park in September 2011
  • David Shankbone
  • An Occupy Wall Street protester in New York’s Zucotti Park in September 2011

Those neighborhoods, and their residents, haven’t benefited from another several decades of government neglect. In one of our stories this week, I documented the lack of progress in Chicago, where poor, segregated neighborhoods and schools are widespread, as they were in the 1960s.

The national picture is also bleak, as sociologist Patrick Sharkey shows in his new book, Stuck in Place.

Drawing data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a large, longitudinal household survey that began in 1968, Sharkey studied the economic circumstances and outcomes of white and black children raised after the civil rights movement. The black children did much worse. This isn’t surprising, Sharkey writes, given that two-thirds of the black children grew up in neighborhoods with high poverty rates—areas marked by rampant unemployment, violence, and inferior schools—whereas only 5 percent of white children did.

Another of Sharkey’s findings: poverty is intergenerational. Many of those growing up poor in impoverished neighborhoods today are the offspring of parents who grew up poor in impoverished neighborhoods. “It is not just that the ghetto has persisted, but that the ghetto has been inherited,” Sharkey writes.

This also isn’t surprising, but it’s essential to keep in mind. A problem with such deep roots requires sustained remediation. Centuries of discrimination will not be undone in four years, or six, or ten.

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The two chief remedies for the concentrated poverty that decades of segregation has produced are “mobility” programs that help poor people move out of such neighborhoods, and investment programs that seek to enrich the neighborhoods themselves.

Public policy experts have differed on which approach should be emphasized. But that’s largely an academic debate. We need to do a lot of both, and are doing little of either.

King himself addressed this issue in New York on March 25, 1968, just ten days before he was killed. Speaking at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly—an international association of rabbis—he said, “We should gradually move to disperse the ghetto, and immediately move to improve conditions within the ghetto, which in the final analysis will make it possible to disperse it at a greater rate a few years from now.”

According to Sharkey, studies of mobility programs have shown “that when families are able to move out of the most violent, poorest, racially segregated neighborhoods in the nation, their children’s academic and cognitive scores rise sharply.” The results have been mixed when families move from a deeply disadvantaged neighborhood to one only slightly better, as too often has been the case with mobility programs.

Enrichment efforts also have raised hopes. In the most renowned such initiative, the Promise Academy, families in 100 blocks of Harlem participate in programs that begin when parents are expecting and extend through their children’s college years. Scores on achievement tests have been encouraging.

Promise Academy is expensive, and has relied largely on the fund-raising ability of its charismatic founder, Geoffrey Canada. When Barack Obama was campaigning for president, he pledged to spend “a few billion dollars a year” to replicate Promise Academy in 20 cities. Instead a total of only $100 million was spent in Obama’s first four years. (The administration has asked for $300 million for fiscal 2014.)

The demolition of housing projects, here and throughout the country, offered possibilities for increased racial and economic integration. But under the HOPE VI initiative, as it was called, most residents wound up in neighborhoods that were only marginally less poor. “Even the program’s strongest advocates acknowledge that not enough was done to ensure that residents had assistance in finding new housing,” Sharkey writes.

The successor to HOPE VI, President Obama’s Choice Neighborhoods program, is a smart approach to rebuilding communities in the areas where projects were torn down, Sharkey says. But “at current funding levels it will provide a relatively meager amount of resources to a small number of neighborhoods across the country.”

And that’s always the problem: our efforts are far too modest. We make “weak, erratic” investments in urban neighborhoods, Sharkey says, when strong, consistent ones are necessary. We need a “durable” urban policy that will “withstand fluctuations in the economy and in the nation’s political commitment to its cities and neighborhoods,” Sharkey writes.

But where’s the political impetus for an unrelenting effort? “The true answer is I don’t know where the commitment would come from, given that we’ve never sustained a commitment to urban neighborhoods,” Sharkey told me yesterday in an e-mail.

He added that the tide may be turning against mass incarceration, and that if this continues, “the massive funds spent to police and imprison young people can be converted to positive investments in these communities.”

Maybe—but that could be wishful thinking. Urban poverty and segregation persist not because we have no idea how to address them, or because we aren’t wealthy enough as a nation to do so. We’re just unwilling. Actions speak louder than words. Our actions have been saying that it’s OK for lives, most of them African-American lives, to be squandered.

On the March day in New York when King spoke to the rabbis, he told them:

Even though the President said today that we have never had it so good, we must honestly say that for many people in our country, they’ve never had it so bad. Poverty is a glaring, notorious reality for some 40 million Americans. I guess it wouldn’t be so bad for them if it were shared misery, but it is poverty amid plenty. . . . I think it is absolutely necessary now to deal massively and militantly with the economic problem.

I am convinced that nothing will be done until enough people of good will get together . . . and bring these issues out in the open enough so that the Congressmen, who are in no mood at the present time to do anything about this problem, will be forced to do something about it.

And he added:

“We must make it very clear that this isn’t just a Negro problem, that white Americans have a responsibility, indeed a great responsibility, to work passionately and unrelentingly for the solution of the problem of racism.”