As someone who works in civil rights and politics, I’ve become the go-to guru in my family on all things political or government-related. Just before the New Year, a relative who is unemployed asked me whether the unemployment insurance would be extended. I told him that I thought it would be unlikely before the holiday, but I thought there might be a chance in early January. But as we near the end of the month, it seems that we haven’t really seen any progress, although the Senate is supposed to revisit the matter soon.
During the King Holiday, I had an opportunity to reflect on Dr. King and his legacy. Toward the end of his life, he was turning more to economic equality and human rights, and it’s something that rarely gets attention or is called upon as part of his legacy. A list of economic proposals to address inequalities was compiled by MSNBC and included a proposal for a guaranteed liveable income and a proposal for a guaranteed job among others.
Imagine if Dr. King would have lived to see his 85th birthday, what would he be saying about the fact that income inequalities have increased, the minimum wage isn’t enough to live on, and those who are unemployed struggle to find work while politicians block their access to much-needed benefits?
I’m sure Dr. King would not be silent on these issues and would be organizing action to address them.
A recent poll by Fox News cited an interesting statistic: 55 percent of the people they polled think that giving unemployment benefits to people who have been out of work for a long time discourages them from looking for a job. But delving further in to the article revealed another stat: nearly 70 percent of Americans think that unemployment should be extended past the current and standard 26-week period to at least a year.
The reality for most people who receive unemployment benefits is that they struggle to make ends meet. I was privileged enough to attend President Barack Obama’s announcement, asking Congress to work together to address the unemployment insurance extension. The woman who opened the event lost her unemployment insurance, had to cut her heat down to 62 degrees, and was reduced to eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Her story isn’t that far off from what other people I know are going through.
I know people who have lost their homes and are technically homeless and people who have to make hard decisions between helping their children through school or keeping their house.
Being unemployed is no winning situation and it certainly isn’t a vacation either.
A separate poll done by Pew Research/USA Today found that 69 percent of people think that the government should address income inequalities. But beneath that majority lies the partisanship: 90 percent of Democrats agree that income inequalities should be addressed, only 46 percent of Republicans agree that Uncle Sam should intervene.
The most-interesting statistic from the poll to me is that the majority of people, 51 percent to be exact, think that poverty is due to an individual “lack of effort.” With that view in mind, it’s easy to see why we can’t solve our economic problems. I invite anyone who believes that “lack of effort” is generally what causes people to be impoverished to travel with me to my hometown, Camden, N.J., the poorest city in the country.
I will introduce them to people who, despite their best efforts, have dealt with situations that led them away from success and captured them in a cycle of poverty. In fact, we have to look no further than Congress’ own backyard, Southeast Washington, D.C., to find people in the poverty trap.
Does that mean that everyone who is in poverty has tried to get out? No, but until we address the general misconceptions, half-truths, lies, and misguided beliefs, we can never truly have all things be equal.
Janaye Ingram is the National Executive Director of the National Action Network.