This last Monday, on Martin Luther King holiday, Oxfam released its annual report on inequality.
The report found that the world’s 62 richest people now own as much wealth as the “the bottom half of humanity,” – some 3.6 billion people.
Just five years ago, it took 388 billionaires to match half the world’s wealth. On this trajectory, in just a few years one person will own more than fifty percent of all the people who exist on the earth. Sit with that for a minute. And then think about that individual. Think about the role that she or he played in creating the problem — and the powerful role that she or he could play in fixing it.
Of course, first that person would have to see that concentration of wealth as an actual problem, which both moralists and economists agree it is. But it isn’t just a problem of money or morals. It is deeper than that. It is has become an issue of basic human rights.
That Oxfam’s report was released on MLK Day should not be lost on us. In the months and days leading up to his death in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was spearheading an initiative called The Poor People’s Campaign.
The Poor People’s Campaign demanded economic rights for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.
It asserted that civil rights are inextricably linked to economics, that economic justice is fundamental to human dignity, and that in the richest country in the world, it is immoral to deny basic economic rights to all people, of all stripes and sizes.
King saw economic justice as the final frontier of the Civil Rights movement. Today, that frontier is still miles away, and fading fast.
Not only is the income gap widening but also, and perhaps even more importantly, the floor is falling out from underneath us.
According to the Pew Research Center, “Since it was last raised in 2009, to the current $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum has lost about 8.1% of its purchasing power to inflation.” So it’s not just that the rich are getting richer. It’s that everyone else is getting poorer.
In fact, we have created an economy where by definition and legal fiat someone can work full time and suffer grinding poverty. In most parts of the country you need at least $15 an hour to get by, and according to the National Employment Law Project, “forty-two (42) percent of U.S. workers make less than $15 per hour.”
There is a lot of room between $7.25 and $15 an hour. We are creating an economy where it is impossible to live.
If we are a moral people, we must move to raise the minimum wage. This is our first order of business: to raise the wage to $15 an hour and secure the floor so that it is not devalued by inflation.
In the 1960s, the sins of the past came knocking and Americans of all stripes and colors were forced to stand up and be counted. People in the corridors of wealth and influence had to decide, and change came.
Today, we again find ourselves at such a crossroads. It is time for the rich to stand up and be counted. Again, change is coming. Again, we are evolving.
On which side of history do you stand?