Dr. King's birthday provides the opportunity to reflect on his ideals and his ideas, which are as or even more relevant today nearly 50 years after his assassination.
It is worth remembering that Dr. King spent the last months of his life focused on economics noting that, "This is America's opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will." In the mid-60's just after Dr. King died, about 10% of working age Americans were officially poor, and today the census says 13.5% are poor.
While it appears that so far we have not had the will; hope springs eternal. In a letter thanking Dr. King for inscribing and sending his book Why We Can't Wait, my father the late Senator Jacob Javits, who had worked with him on the Civil Rights Act, noted, "Your 'humble efforts' have literally opened the door to momentous and historic achievements toward a fellowship of men and women with equal opportunity and without distinction as to color or race in our nation." To properly remember and honor the blood, sweat and tears it took to achieve the victories of that era requires us to take action now.
Most economists agree that income inequality is growing in the U.S. and elsewhere; that mobility is a continuing challenge - with, for example, a sky-high 43% of children born poor likely to remain so over their lifetime, and the costs of economic immobility are higher than ever because the income skew is so much greater. Meanwhile poverty rates remain high; workforce participation rates for adults are at an historic low of 62.6%, with enduring pockets of unemployment - 8.3% for African Americans vs. 4.5% for whites; and as high as 50 to 80% for some groups like those who have been incarcerated or people with disabilities; and wages remain stagnant, and far below self-sufficiency standards for too many.
What can we do about it?
Businesses that want to be "Great Places to Work" should look for ways to employ more people that can and want to work and to organize their supply chains in the US as some have done outside of the US -- favoring companies that offer work opportunities to those most in need of employment. Domestic examples to emulate: mid-sized companies like Dave's Killer Bread which set up a foundation to advise other companies that want to replicate their example of employing people who have been incarcerated as one-third of its' highly productive workforce; and larger initiatives like 100,000 Opportunities, a multi-employer coalition committed to training and hiring young adults who are out of school and not working.
Philanthropists are impatient with the pace of change, and stepping up. Take the Ford Foundation, the second largest with a $12 billion corpus. Their President Darren Walker has led the Foundation to refocus all of its myriad resources on reducing inequality by addressing key factors like "persistent prejudice and discrimination, and rules of the economy that magnify unequal opportunity and outcomes." Given the huge reach of the Foundation, this decision is likely to impact the strategy and focus of many foundations over the coming years.
Mr. Walker's colleague at the Heron Foundation, Clara Miller, has led her Board to a revolutionary decision to put all of their chips on one big bet and dedicate 100% of their assets to achieve their social mission of economic opportunity - something foundations do not typically do. Said Miller, it is time to "rebalance the economy so it ensures opportunity for all." Individual donors and philanthropists of all stripes can be an important part of the solution by directing resources to increasing economic mobility.
In an election year, our existing and potential representatives would do well to mobilize in support of the philanthropic, social sector and business leaders that are focusing on preparing people to work, making work available, and making work pay, while addressing the inequities that prevent some people from getting or keeping jobs An encouraging sign to start the New Year was the Republican primary candidates' participation in the Kemp Forum on expanding opportunity where Speaker of the House Paul Ryan noted, "We're the only nation founded on an idea: The condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life." This is an American ideal that politicians on both sides of the aisle can agree on.
A recent 'joint report on poverty' from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution - which are on opposite sides politically -- also offers a glimmer of hope. One of the authors noted that it is "Time for our leaders to show the same magnanimity that the AEI/Brookings taskforce did in crafting a common program. To agree at all is more important than to bridle over details. An impatient public waits for maturity to break out."
Their 'consensus on action' is an employment-focused set of policies that includes the call to: "make work pay better than it does now for less-educated workers; expand work requirements and opportunities for the hard-to-employ while simultaneously maintaining a work-based safety net for the most vulnerable; and ensure that jobs are available."
All of these bold calls to action share in common a relentless focus on achieving results that together will break the back of the forces that threaten to calcify inequality and drown our great dream of economic and social mobility.
As REDF gets ready to launch a first-ever national portfolio of investments in social enterprises - mission-driven businesses that make it part of their business to open the doors of employment to people who are willing and able to work but face formidable barriers - backed by the business community, philanthropy, and the federal government's Social Innovation Fund - we will, alongside many other Americans, look to our philanthropic, government and business leaders to make good on their fresh thinking and big ideas.
Let's put our full weight behind all efforts to make jobs available, and make sure it pays to work, so that economic and social mobility is a reality for everyone. That's our dream for 2016, and it is past time for all of us to take it from dream to reality.