To repair the economy, listen to MLK

This Martin Luther King Holiday coincides with a vibrant national debate about one of the civil rights hero’s favorite subjects: How to end poverty in America.

While Democrats have proposed a range of ideas including increasing the minimum wage, extending unemployment insurance, reforming immigration laws, and investing in infrastructure and education programs, the Republicans are also putting poverty on their 2014 agenda, calling for the consolidation of federal anti-poverty programs, more flexibility for states in spending federal anti-poverty dollars, and new emphasis on the importance of marriage for economic success.

While there are plenty of good ideas out there, I have simple advice for anyone who wants to end poverty in America: Listen to MLK.

Martin Luther King, Jr. will always be remembered for his success as a nonviolent campaigner against segregation and discrimination, but some of his most profound insights were on how to win the campaign for economic inclusion.

As he argued in the 1967 presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the best way to fight poverty in America is to invest in creating employment and training programs for every person with a desire to work. He was a strong believer in the ideal of a “Full Employment Society.”

Half a decade after the start of the Great Recession, we’re still so far from realizing this part of Dr. King’s dream. There are more than 11 million people looking for work, including more than 4 million who have gone without a paycheck for longer than six months.

According to a recent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, African-Americans today have considerably higher levels of educational attainment than they did 30 years ago; yet their chances of having a job that offers a living wage, health insurance, and a retirement plan are actually lower today than in the early 1980s.

The unemployment rate for black Americans, still stubbornly high at 12 percent, is twice that of white Americans.

All this unemployment has hurt Americans’ health (think of the anxiety and lost health insurance coverage), homes and communities (think of all the foreclosures), and lifelong goals and dreams (think of all the unused skills and discrimination against the long-term jobless).

But MLK’s vision of a full-employment society isn’t just about helping minorities and the jobless. It’s about building a strong and sustainable economy for everyone.

When we get everyone working, businesses and investors have more customers to buy their products and services. When we get everyone working, people have power to bargain for higher wages.

There are plenty of ways we can come together to realize Dr. King’s vision of a Full Employment America. The American Jobs Act of 2013, which I sponsored in Congress, would stop Washington’s careless budget cuts while creating smart incentives for hiring the long-term unemployed — including veterans — and creating new employment for educators, emergency responders, construction workers, and medical and scientific researchers.

This month, my colleague Rep. John Conyers and I are establishing Congress’ “Full Employment Caucus” to advocate for policies to create needed training and work opportunities fields including infrastructure repair, building efficiency, early education, public health, and community revitalization. While our conservative colleagues might call this approach “big government,” we know it’s just the opposite: When everyone is fully trained, using their skills, earning a living, and paying taxes, there’s no more need for government assistance. There’s less debt and more economic growth.

MLK understood that the key to a well-functioning free market is a strong commitment to full employment.

Let’s honor his legacy on this holiday, and commit to getting every American back to work.

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Miami represents Florida’s 24th District in Congress.

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