President Barack Obama speaks from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, August 28, 2013. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

There is much to celebrate in marking the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as Congressman John Lewis rightly noted on Wednesday.

“Sometime I hear people saying nothing has changed,” said Representative Lewis, “but for someone to grow up the way I grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama to now be serving in the United States Congress makes me want to tell them come and walk in my shoes. Come walk in the shoes of those who were attacked by police dogs, fire hoses and nightsticks, arrested and taken to jail.”

President Barack Obama agreed.

“To dismiss the magnitude of this progress—to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed—that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years,” he said.

But Congressman Lewis and President Obama also spoke eloquently about the substantial work that remains if we are to fulfill the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights activists who risked and sacrificed their lives in order to achieve our nation’s greatest advances.

“…The securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination—the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the march,” said President Obama. “For the men and women who gathered fifty years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice.”

President Obama ticked off the marchers' call for “decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community”—adding that it is with regard to these economic goals that we “have fallen most short.”

Lewis was more explicit in decrying “the scars and stains of racism [that] still remain deeply embedded in American society.” Among the evidence: stop-and-frisk, the Trayvon Martin case, mass incarceration, immigration policy, poverty, employment inequities, and the renewed struggle for voting rights.

President Obama suggested that there is a solution at hand, and it lies in having “the courage” to “stand together”—that we must “reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling,” creating the kind of “coalition of conscience” that marched in DC fifty years ago.

“With that courage, we can feed the hungry, and house the homeless, and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise,” he said.

The President insisted—as he has many times—that “change does not come from Washington but to Washington…built on our willingness, we the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship.”

And yet.

Yesterday thousands of fast food workers in more than fifty cities struck for higher wages and the right to form a union. This growing movement has focused attention on the struggles of low-wage workers. If President Obama believes that it is in achieving the economic opportunity goals of the March on Washington where we have fallen most short—and indeed nearly 30 percent of workers earned poverty wages in 2011—shouldn’t he speak forcefully and explicitly in support of these workers’ current actions?

Along those same lines, nearly 2 million workers employed under federal contracts don’t earn a living wage—more than the number of low-wage workers at Walmart and McDonald's combined. By signing an executive order, President Obama could take an important step toward lifting these wages and ensuring that government contracts are awarded based on the quality of jobs created. His administration could also act, finally, to extend minimum wage and overtime protections to 2.5 million home care workers.

Yes, change comes from outside of Washington, but when it arrives on Capitol Hill, it requires courage and action from a president to see it through. Former President Bill Clinton noted that just three months after the 1963 march, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, “and we thank God that President Johnson came in and fought for [these] issues.”

We don’t need any more data on inequality and stagnant wages—we know the state of things and the right thing to do. The fact that Republicans make action impossible on too many common-sense measures like investing in infrastructure and job creation—that’s all the more reason President Obama needs to take action when he can, where he can.

“That’s where courage comes from, when we turn not from each other, or on each other, but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone,” said the president.

Now is his opportunity to show tens of millions of citizens that he is walking with them, and that together we will not turn back.

Take Action

Low pay is not okay: Sign an open letter to fast food chains

Tell Publix that it’s time to join the Fair Food Program!

Push back against junk food marketing to kids and ensure access to healthy foods at schools

Extend Labor Protections to Home Care Workers

Clips, Reports and other Resources

Responding to Long-Term Unemployment,” Gregory Acs

To Work With Dignity: The Unfinished March Toward a Decent Minimum Wage,” Sylvia Allegretto and Steven C. Pitts

On the Anniversary of the March on Washington, a New Fight for Voting Rights,” Ari Berman

Dr. King, Full Employment, and Some Provocative Wage Trends,” Jared Bernstein

Why Welfare is not a Sweet Deal in Ohio,” Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board

Asset Limits and Financial Security: A Conversation on Twitter,” Hannah Emple

Low-wage Workers Are Older Than You Think,” David Cooper and Dan Essrow

An Unfulfilled Dream From the March on Washington: Labor Rights for Domestic Work,” Bryce Covert

Largest fast food strike ever today: 58 cities will be affected,” Josh Eidelson

Fast Food Workers: The Time is Now for Better Wages,” Equal Voice News

Fifty years after March on Washington, economic gap between blacks, whites persists,” Michael Fletcher

Anti-hunger advocates feed legislators policy advice, ideas,” Kate Giammarise

Where King Stood, The Standard President Obama Must Meet,” Reverend Jesse Jackson

The State of Working Connecticut 2013: Young People in the Workforce,” Edie Joseph and Orlando Rodriguez

Fast-Food Workers Expected to Protest Low Wages Nationwide,” Allison Kilkenny

DC’s Money Explosion Leaves Most Behind,” John Light

"Will California Lawmakers Repeal Law Requiring Poor Mothers to Prove Rape to Receive Aid for Newborn?" Nick Miller

Hard Work, Hard Lives,” Oxfam America

For Public Schools, Segregation Then, Segregation Since: Education and the Unfinished March,” Richard Rothstein

Ten Reasons Why Fast Food Workers Deserve a Raise,” Catherine Ruetschlin and Amy Traub

One Goal of the March on Washington Gets a Bit Closer,” Barbara Sard

CLASP Study of Infant and Toddler Child Care Policies,” Stephanie Schmit and Hannah Matthews

27 Weeks and Counting: Long-term Unemployment in America,” Urban Institute

Race and Poverty, Fifty Years After the March,” Vauhini Vara

This Labor Day, What’s the State of the Unions?” Michael Winship

WK Kellogg Foundation announces family engagement investment to… support early childhood educational success,” WK Kellogg Foundation

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $17,916 for a family of three): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent. (US Census Bureau 2012)

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 23 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 34 percent of Latino children.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, one in fifteen Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.

African-American poverty rate: 27.6 percent.

White poverty rate: 9.8 percent.

Ratio of black unemployment to white unemployment, 1963–2012: 2 to 2.5 times higher every year.

Jobless rate for blacks with some college education, 2012: 12.1 percent.

Jobless rate for white workers who have not finished high school, 2012: 11.4 percent.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than one in three Americans.

People in the US experiencing poverty by age 65: Roughly half.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Hourly wage needed to lift a family of four above poverty line, 2011: $11.06.

Federal minimum wage: $7.25 ($2.13 for tipped workers)

Federal minimum wage if indexed to inflation since 1968: $10.59.

Federal minimum wage if it kept pace with productivity gains: $18.72.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996 (pre-welfare reform): sixty-eight for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: twenty-seven for every 100 families living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Impact of public policy, 1964–1973: poverty rate fell by 43 percent.      

Number of homeless children in US public schools: 1,065,794.

Federal expenditures on home ownership mortgage deductions, 2012: $131 billion.

Federal funding for low-income housing assistance programs, 2012: less than $50 billion.

Percentage of US population that is African-American: 13 percent.

Percentage of homeless shelter population that is African-American: nearly 40 percent.

Quotes of the Week

“We truly believe that in every human being, even those who…were violent toward us, there was a spark of the divine. And no person had the right to scar or destroy that spark. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. He taught us to have the power to forgive, the capacity to be reconciled. He taught us to stand up, to speak up, to speak out, to find a way to get in the way.”
   —Congressman John Lewis

“They had seen loved ones beaten, and children fire-hosed, and they had every reason to lash out in anger, or resign themselves to a bitter fate. And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in, with the moral force of nonviolence.”
   —President Barack Obama

This Week in Poverty posts here on Friday mornings, and again at Moyers & Company and AlterNet. You can e-mail me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter.

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