photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

Rebuilding the Dream of Martin Luther King

At Catholic Charities, we work every day to keep the dream of Martin Luther King alive. But as this recession has deepened, we see that dream threatened as layoffs and unemployment erode the progress black Americans have made to climb out of poverty and share in the American dream.

When Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, about half of all African Americans lived in poverty. The efforts of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, coupled with the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty in the 1960’s, marked the beginning of upward mobility towards the middle class for African Americans: good jobs, home ownership, a college education.


The country’s economic expansion in the 1990’s also did much to reduce poverty among African Americans, as related by the Economic Policy Institute:

Over the 1990s, there was strong job growth and the black poverty rate dropped 9.4 percentage points from 31.9 percent in 1990 to 22.5 percent in 2000. The black poverty rate in 2000 was the lowest black poverty rate on record. The 1990s decline was the biggest drop in black poverty since the 1960s. It was amazing to see the black poverty rate cut by almost a third in a mere 10 years.

But then came the Great Recession, and the number of African Americans living below the poverty line soared to 27.4 percent - nearly 11 million people – in 2010, up from its historic low just a few years earlier. (Contrast that with the overall official poverty of 15.1 percent, which rose from 11.3 percent in the same time period.) The Department of Labor reports that since the recession officially ended, the overall unemployment rate has fallen to 8.5 percent, while the black unemployment rate rose to 16.7 percent, and now stands at 15.8 percent. Even when employed, the median income of the black population is $32,068, lower than the overall median income of $49,445.

While the recession and ongoing slow recovery have hurt the American middle class as a whole, the black middle class has been especially hard hit because of massive layoffs in the federal, state and local public sector:  “About one in five black workers have public-sector jobs, and African-American workers are one-third more likely than white ones to be employed in the public sector,” as The New York Times noted in November 2011. Government jobs provided millions of African Americans a ladder out of poverty and into the middle class. Now, many are gone. While 1.9 million private sector jobs were added last year, 280,000 government jobs were lost.

Before the recession, African Americans also were realizing the American dream of owning a home, and that, too, has reversed. Reviewing the mortgage foreclosure crisis in its report, Lost Ground, 2011, the Center for Responsible Lending finds that although the majority of affected borrowers have been white (5.1 percent foreclosure rate), people of color were almost twice as likely to have been impacted by the crisis, (9.8 percent). CRL also found that despite good credit scores and income, African Americans were offered loans at higher interest rates than white borrowers and were targets of predatory lending.

Yes, much progress has been made since Dr. King cried out his dream from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Many organizations, including Catholic Charities agencies, have stepped in since the 2008 financial crisis to stem the erosion of that dream.  Clearly, we all need to do more. America will not truly recover unless our African American brothers and sisters are included in that recovery.

We must keep the dream alive. We must rebuild an America for everyone. This is our hope. This is our faith.