The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Civil Rights 101 - Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund - 2001

Race, Class, and Economic Justice


THERE HAS LONG been a close association between the struggle for civil rights and the fight against poverty in the United States. From its beginnings, the contemporary civil rights movement was as much about jobs as justice -- indeed, the two were seen as inextricably linked. Martin Luther King, Jr. was defending the rights of striking sanitation workers in Memphis and planning a "Poor Peoples' Campaign" march to Washington to promote the linkage between civil rights and economic opportunity at the time of his assassination in 1968. Dr. King and others - including President Lyndon Johnson - knew there was a close connection between those denied civil rights and those mired in what seemed to be intractable poverty.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON'S VISION of what he called "The Great Society" encompassed both those elements in a host of legislative and other initiatives that came to be known as the War on Poverty. In recent decades, however, some critics have not only declared Johnson's War on Poverty a failure, but have also fingered it as the cause of contemporary economic woes. Some have even used the very phrase "Great Society" as an invective to denounce nearly all government programs aimed at helping the working poor and others in or near poverty. Generally, however, those who use the phrase in a derogatory fashion are often uncertain as to what constituted either the "Great Society" or the War on Poverty. As a result, a number of myths and misconceptions have grown up around both phrases.

FIRST AND FOREMOST among the misconceptions is that the major federal welfare program (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC) was a Great Society program. In fact, AFDC was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 as part of the Social Security bill. Moreover, no substantive changes in the AFDC program were made during the Johnson era.

MOST OF JOHNSON'S "WAR ON POVERTY" was carried out by the Office of Economic Opportunity. The "War on Poverty" was, Paul E. Peterson has written, "little more than a call for citizen participation combined with a hodgepodge of hastily designed educational, job training and neighborhood service programs that had little internal coherence and only limited financial backing. It was more important as a vehicle for involving African Americans and other minorities in local political processes than as a mechanism for redistributing wealth."

ONE KEY ANTI-POVERTY PROGRAM of the Johnson era was not a cash transfer program but an expansion, through increased benefits and the newly created Medicare program, of the social insurance system first put into place during President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Indeed, Medicare and Social Security - which were aimed at all of the elderly and not just those who were impoverished -- have been credited with sharply reducing the number of elderly poor. Before 1970, at least a quarter of Americans over 65 had incomes below the poverty line, but by 1999 the poverty rate for elderly Americans had dropped to an all-time low of 9.7%.

IN ATTACKING THE PROBLEM OF POVERTY among the non-elderly, the Great Society relied on a mixture of service programs, such as job training and legal services, and means-tested programs. Under means-tested programs, eligibility for benefits was based on income, usually set in relation to the poverty line. While the major New Deal programs of the 1930s - Social Security and AFDC - were cash transfer programs, the major Great Society initiatives relied on in-kind services. Two of the key means-tested, anti-poverty programs were Medicaid (the health insurance program for the poor roughly comparable to Medicare's protections for the elderly) and Food Stamps (which provides the poor not with cash, but with vouchers for the purchase of food).

OTHER SMALL PROGRAMS created as part of the War on Poverty included the Job Corps, the pre-school Head Start program (everyone's favorite anti-poverty effort), Chapter I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which provides aid to economically disadvantaged children), Guaranteed Student Loans, the school lunch program and subsidies for low-rent public housing, rural health clinics for migrant workers, nutrition programs for the elderly and social service programs for refugees.

SOME OF THE PROGRAMS, like Head Start, Medicaid and Food Stamps, continue in place and have grown under both Republican and Democratic administrations, but funding remains less than necessary to reach eligible clients. Others, like Legal Services, remain in place but under sharp constraints that have narrowed their original mandate to serve as advocates of the poor.

THE LEGACY OF THE GREAT SOCIETY and its War on Poverty is certainly far greater than the dismal failure critics have portrayed. Not only has poverty among the elderly declined dramatically, Great Society programs, for example, directed at pre-school child development have demonstrated significant success. The most well-known example, Head Start, is considered effective because children in the program stay in school, go to college, and avoid arrest, drugs, and teen-age pregnancy in far greater numbers than those their counterparts who don't participate in the program. Similar positive results emerge from evaluation of Chapter I, the 1965 program to assist economically disadvantaged children. These and other successes were achieved despite often minimal funding and incessant criticism.

IN THE MODERN CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, issues of class have often been entangled with questions of rights and the problems of race. The drive to dismantle segregation and defeat discrimination has centered on the need to open the gates of economic opportunity that were closed to minorities, women, and others by both governmental and private action.

FOR MANY AMERICANS, the American dream means a vast middle class, a society in which the basic necessities of food, shelter, and education are available to all - with enough left over for a comfortable life. Certainly Martin Luther King's vision of equality and integration was not confined to overturning the segregation laws. Indeed, breaking through the barrier of segregation was seen as a means to the end of providing African Americans with an equal opportunity to join the middle class and beyond.

YET THE MIDDLE-CLASS DREAM continues disproportionately to elude minority families. For example, 1999 Current Population Survey data shows that 27% of white families -- yet only 9% of Hispanic families -- reported earnings of $50,000 or more. Half of African Americans in married-couple families had incomes of $50,000 or more, according to 2000 Current Population Survey data, compared to 61% of white married-couple families.

AND WHILE the 1999 median family income for all white families was $42,500 (up from $36,900 in 1991), that for African American families was only $27,900 (up from $21,400), $30,700 for Hispanic families (up from $23,400), and $30,800 for American Indians and Native Alaskans.

MOREOVER, MINORITIES DO NOT APPEAR to receive the same return from their investment in education compared to their white counterparts. For example, according to 1999 Current Population Survey data, white workers 18 years and older with a high school degree and working full-time earned a median income of $26,800, while those with a college degree earned $48,800. Meanwhile, their black counterparts with a high school degree earned only $22,900, and those with a college degree $38,600. Latino high school graduates working full-time reported a median income of $21,500 and college graduates $39,300. Asian and Pacific Islanders reported a median income of $22,600 for those with a high school diploma, and $40,500 for those with an undergraduate degree.

EVEN IN TIMES OF DECLINING POVERTY AND UNEMPLOYMENT, minorities remain disproportionately likely to be poor and/or unemployed. For example, 1999 Current Population Survey data concluded that 32.3 million Americans were poor, for a national poverty rate of 11.8% -- the lowest level since 1979. Yet the African American poverty rate was 23.6 percent (down from 31.9% in 1990); Native Americans had a 25.9 percent rate (down from 30.9%), Latinos were poor at a rate of 22.8% (down from 28.1%), while Asians and Pacific Islanders had a 10.7% poverty rate (down from 12.2% in 1990). Just under eight percent of whites -- 7.7% -- were below the poverty line, down from a 10.7% rate in 1990. (In 1999, the poverty line was set at $17,029.)

SIMILARLY, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the March 2001 unemployment rate was 4.3 percent. But for African Americans, it was 8.6 percent and for Latinos 6.3%, while the rate for white Americans was 3.7 percent.

MINORITY CHLDREN are also disproportionately likely to be poor: one-third of both African American and Hispanic children in America are poor, compared to 13.5% of white kids, and 11.8% of Asian Americans. Latino and African American children are also disproportionately likely to lack health insurance -- according to 1999 Current Population Survey data, one out of every four Latino children and one out of every six African American kids are uninsured, compared to one out of every of 11 white children. Similarly, Latino married-couple families were more than four times as likely to be living in poverty as their white counterparts - 14% of Latino married-couple families were below the poverty line in 1999, compared to only 3% of white families.

The Debate About the Sources of Poverty and Economic Inequality

THE PERSISTENCE of poverty and income inequality remains the subject of vigorous debate. Since the 1960s, policymakers and scholars have recognized that discrimination and poverty are major obstacles to opportunity in America. Thirty years ago, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, popularly known as the Kerner Commission, warned that the nation was rapidly moving into two separate and unequal Americas - one white and living in the suburbs, the other nonwhite and concentrated in the center of metropolitan areas.

SINCE THAT TIME, a great deal of attention has been focused on the extent to which the Kerner Commission's warning has been borne out - as well as on the possible causes of and solutions to such developments. Civil rights advocates and others have argued that developing opportunity through adequate funding of education, job training, and other programs is key - along with continued systematic attacks on discriminatory barriers that continue to block opportunity in employment, housing, education, and elsewhere.

CONSERVATIVE CRITICS argue that persistent poverty and income inequality are instead largely attributable to dysfunctional lifestyles among the poor - and that government benefit programs such as AFDC, Food Stamps, and Medicaid actually exacerbate the problem by discouraging the poor from working and otherwise assuming personal responsibility.

THIS DEBATE CONTINUES in the context of child poverty -- some argue that it is attributable to the flaws of parents, such as poor work habits and/or the failure to marry, while others identify the root issues as the lack of basic economic resources and the opportunities they bring. An analysis by the Children's Defense Fund found that even within the same family, children born during periods in which the family was poor were less likely to finish school than siblings born times of greater family prosperity. This suggests that poor kids are harmed most directly by the absence of basic economic resources.

INDEED, THE FACTS BELIE CLAIMS that child poverty is due to parents' unwillingness to work. According to the Children's Defense Fund, in 1999 one-third of poor kids lived in households where someone is employed full-time year-round. And 78% of poor kids lived in families where someone worked at least part of the year -- up from 61% in 1993 and the highest rate in the 25 years for which data is available.


NOT SURPRISINGLY, THESE DEBATES over the causes of poverty - and their solutions - continue in the public policy context today. In a dramatic shift from the strategies of the Great Society, in 1996 Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). PRWORA replaced the 61-year-old AFDC program with an annual $16.5 billion block grant for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds.

UNDER PRWORA, states have the flexibility to craft their own welfare programs. Needy families are no longer entitled to receive benefits as they were under AFDC. Instead, states are free to set their own eligibility rules and assistance levels, but are not required to provide assistance to anyone, even those meeting their own requirements. States are, however, required to terminate benefits to those who have received them for a certain period of time, and to ensure that a certain percentage of their welfare population is working.

PRWORA thus placed new emphasis on entering the workforce as soon as possible, imposing rigorous new work participation requirements on states as well as benefit recipients, as a condition of continued funding. Critics have charged that these incentives stress getting a job - any job, as quickly as possible and regardless of pay, benefits, or the recipient's need for additional education, training, or support services.

ACCORDING TO DATA released by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the number of families on welfare has declined from the 5 million who received AFDC benefits in 1994 to the 2.6 million families who received TANF benefits in 1999. Although welfare caseloads are declining for all demographic groups, in most states the rate of decline is slower for African Americans and Hispanics than for white recipients. In 1990, according to HHS data, 38% of families receiving benefits were white; 40% black, 17% Latino, and just under 3% were Asian and Pacific Islander. But by 1999, HHS data indicates that 31% of families receiving benefits are white, 38% black, 25% Latino, and 3.5% Asian and Pacific Islander.

THESE STATISTICS suggest that minorities are encountering especially onerous barriers when trying to leave welfare for permanent work. A 1998 National Partnership for Women & Families survey of program providers working with low-income women, for example, found that the top three obstacles to maintaining consistent employment were transportation, child care, and education and training needs. Race and sex discrimination, limited English proficiency, and the need for family leave were also cited as significant limitations on recipients' job opportunities.

CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATES, scholars, and others have charged that PRWORA offers little, if any, support for the newly-employed and their efforts to lift their families out of long-term poverty. For example, a Children's Defense Fund survey of families who had left the welfare rolls sine 1996 found that many ended up in low-paying jobs without benefits, and were often forced to seek emergency services from shelters and soup kitchens. Nearly a third of those parents who had left welfare for work had since lost their jobs. 58% of those surveyed who were working had family earnings below the poverty line. More than half of working parents were unable to cover rent, food, health care, and utilities on their wages.

ON THE OTHER HAND, those who received supportive services -- like health care, additional education and training, and child care assistance -- were far more likely to maintain consistent employment. Civil rights and anti-poverty advocates argue that public policy must thus include a long-term commitment to help families achieve financial independence and remove barriers to economic opportunity in order to be successful in ending the cycle of poverty.

IN GENERAL, economic indicators improved for all racial and ethnic groups throughout the strong American economy of the 1990s. These trends will require close observation, however, as economic conditions fluctuate. Moreover, despite improvements, African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have disproportionately lower incomes, and disproportionately higher unemployment and poverty rates than their white counterparts. For this reason, continuing evaluation of the state of civil rights in America must include an examination of income inequality and economic opportunity.

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