Columnist Jackie Brousseau-Pereira: Still fighting for justice, 50 years later

  • President Lyndon B. Johnson, right, with Clarence Mitchell at the signing of the 1968 Civil Rights Act in the White House, Washington, D.C . COURTESY LBJ LIBRARY

Published: 4/17/2018 7:56:22 PM

This year I will turn 50. I was born in 1968 — the year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated and the year that then-president Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, also known as the Fair Housing Act.

I was born in the middle of the civil rights movement and four years after LBJ declared “War on Poverty.” As I consider all of the political action and conflict of that time, it strikes me that 50 years later, we’re still fighting for justice for all.

Before he was killed, Dr. King started working on the Poor People’s Campaign. He called for poor people to rise up and organize, to create a political movement that would change the system and give everyone a living wage. He described this campaign as a “nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.”

At the time he was shot, Dr. King was in Memphis working with poor sanitation workers, mostly black, to demand better working conditions and a living wage. The Poor People’s Campaign proposed that the government pass an Economic Bill of Rights as way to move people out of poverty and toward economic justice.

The year 1968 actually marked the lowest point of income inequality overall in the U.S. since the Census Bureau started researching the topic in the 1940s. Over the past 50 years, however, there is evidence that we’ve lost ground.

One recent study concluded that the top 5 percent of households in the U.S. had earned incomes that were 13 times higher than households in the bottom 20 percent. For a little perspective, the income for a family of four in the bottom income quintile might be $22,000, while the same-sized family in the top 5 percent earns $286,000.

Economists examine three indicators of wealth: median hourly wage, median household income, and median family net worth or wealth (this includes assets like houses). Income inequality is worse for people of color who, despite earning almost the same as whites in terms of hourly wage, lag far behind in terms of net worth.

The Federal Reserve estimates that black families have acquired only 10 percent of the net worth of their white counterparts and Latinos are in a similar bind. While it’s hard enough to be poor, it’s even more challenging to be poor and not white.

What is going on? Housing discrimination and redlining by lenders meant that people of color weren’t able to purchase homes that would help them build their wealth. Also, beginning with President Ronald Reagan, specific federal policies have exacerbated income inequality by gutting entitlement programs while simultaneously cutting taxes for the rich.

Lowering taxes ensures that programs designed to help the poor are underfunded and therefore harder to provide. Not only that, but also since the 1980s, people living in poverty have been vilified for their circumstances. Consider the myth of the “welfare queen” that Reagan perpetuated for years.

Then-president Bill Clinton in 1996 signed welfare-reform legislation that was part of the GOP “Contract with America” that eliminated Assistance for Families with Dependent Children and replaced it with Temporary Aid to Needy Families. This forced families using aid to find jobs within a specific time limit so they didn’t become “dependent” on the system. This legislation meant that many people who were just at the cusp of making it out of poverty would never be able to get ahead.

Need-based benefits provide people with just enough to barely subsist. Also, once a family earns just a little bit too much at job, they lose benefits that keep their kids fed and housed. It is almost impossible to get out of this never-ending cycle.

Never mind what happens if a person living in poverty gets into an accident or suffers a medical emergency. Living paycheck-to-paycheck with no buffer is terrifying and the stress from living this way often leads to chronic health issues.

The current administration has added a new layer of malevolence to this situation. Our president actively vilifies the poor. Among some of his recent proposals are: drug testing everyone who receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (food stamps), changing the current SNAP program so that families would no longer choose their own food but would be issued a box of rations, cutting the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development so that millions of families would be evicted, defunding Medicaid, and eliminating the subsidy for student loans and removing student loan forgiveness for those who enter public service.

We are living in a time when corporations influence our elections and politicians are encouraged to create policy to ensure that money never trickles down, but rather flows up with no obstructions.

The wealthy and powerful are so out of touch with those who have nothing that they have no understanding of how difficult it is to survive in poverty. The only people with bootstraps were lucky enough to inherit them.

Jackie Brousseau-Pereira, of Easthampton, is the academic dean in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass and the president of the board of Community Action Pioneer Valley. She can be reached at

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