The March on Washington: 50th Anniversary – EPI’s Algernon Austin

Austin summarizes the EPI’s “The Unfinished March” report, which addresses changes that have—or have not—occurred in the 50 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Dr. Algernon Austin directs the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy, which works to advance policies that enable people of color to participate fully in the American economy and benefit equitably from gains in prosperity. He was previously a senior fellow at the Dēmos think tank and assistant director of research at the Foundation Center. He also served on the faculty of Wesleyan University and has written numerous books, including Getting It Wrong and Achieving Blackness. Austin is also author of the EPI report, "The Unfinished March," that looks at changes over the 50 years since the March on Washington.


Tavis: Dr. Algernon Austin is with the Economic Policy Institute and is the author of “The Unfinished March,” a report that lets us know where we are and where we are not 50 years after the March on Washington in four key areas. Dr. Austin, good to have you on this program, sir.

Dr. Algernon Austin: It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Tavis: I want to jump right in. There are four key areas I mentioned before that you have done some in-depth research on to give us some sort of portrait – where we are, where we are not – as to where 50 years later I want to jump right in and go in this particular order.

First these ghettos of poverty. How is it, why is it that 50 years after King tried to ring this bell, poverty is still threatening our democracy? How is it that poverty is now a matter of national security?

Austin: Well, the thing is is that there was some policies that importantly reduced poverty, but our commitment to poverty has really waned over the ’70s, ’80s, and in recent years.

We have allowed a number of policies to prevent all workers from really sharing in prosperity. So for example, one of the demands of the March was for a decent minimum wage, a minimum wage that would be worth today over $13 an hour.

Today, the minimum wage is actually worth less than it was in 1963 in inflation-adjusted terms. Although minimum wage workers are better educated, they’re more productive, as a society we’re much wealthier than we were in 1963, but the fact of the matter is we have allowed the real value of the minimum wage to erode and that means that many workers, low-wage workers, can’t earn enough to lift their families out of poverty.

We’ve also seen a decline of our manufacturing base. Significant numbers of male workers have lost good jobs and we’ve seen their wages decline. So perhaps more than half of more than male workers today are earning less than they would have earned 30, 35 years ago.

Tavis: I’m going to come back to the minimum wage versus a living wage in just a second.

Austin: Right.

Tavis: Before I move off of that, before I come back to that, though, let me now move so quickly off this issue of poverty. These are my words, not yours, but I do want your response to this.

Austin: Right.

Tavis: How is it that 50 years later we can’t even seem to get a real conversation – you can’t even get traction in Washington talking about poverty? And now I indict the president, Barack Obama, and the members of Congress, both the left and the right.

So it’s not about casting aspersion just on the president. Everybody has to acknowledge that they spend so much more time in Washington talking about the middle class, they’re almost obsessed. Poll-tested, conversations about the middle class, but we can’t get a conversation about poverty.

Why is that?

Austin: Right. Well, you said it – it’s a political sort of poll-tested way of trying to, you know, get that extra percentage point in terms of public opinion. One of the things that prior political leaders did, and certainly our civil rights leader did, was they went against public opinion.

They really said this is the morally right thing to do, and we need to move the country in that direction. Unfortunately, that type of leadership, we don’t see today.

Tavis: This president campaigned on raising the minimum wage. At one point he was for raising it even to a higher level than what he has suggested of late that he wants to raise it to, so why the negotiating against himself?

What is it about this raising minimum wage (laughter) in Washington – why can’t politicians understand that Americans are hurting, that we need a living wage, not a minimum wage? What’s the hold up in getting this conversation pushed through?

Austin: Yeah. That’s really an important issue for the political scientists. I think we have – the economic facts that we have to really get out to the American public is that in real terms, the wage has declined.

Tavis: Right.

Austin: People are earning less today than they did in 1963, although they’re better educated and more productive workers, and we’re a richer country. It just does not make sense that the minimum wage should be so low, given all the advances that we’ve made in education, in productivity, in the wealth of the country.

This is – there’s just been a real, over the last 30 years, disconnect between our policies. We no longer have a real national policy agenda that looks out for average Americans, and certainly not for low-income and poor Americans. We have policies that really redistribute income and wealth to the wealthiest Americans.

Tavis: So I don’t have time now to get into how bad these under-employment numbers are –

Austin: Right.

Tavis: – but unemployment has run amok. African Americans still almost twice the national average when it comes to our unemployment. The unemployment numbers of Black males specifically is completely off the charts.

Austin: Right.

Tavis: So they wanted, they marched for jobs 50 years ago and now what are we looking at?

Austin: Right. Just to get back to where we were at the start of the recession in 2007 we need over eight million jobs. If we want to address the racial disparities, if we want the Black unemployment rate to be the same as the white unemployment rate, if we want the Latino unemployment rate to be the same as the white unemployment rate, we’ll probably need another two million jobs. So that’s 10, 11 million jobs that we need there.

A. Philip Randolph, one of the key organizers for the March on Washington, what his primary concern was, he saw there were six million unemployed people and many more people in poverty, and that was his primary concern. He said, “This is a crisis.”

Today, he would say, “Look, we’re worse off. I was complaining about six million,” but now we have, we’re in a situation where there are 11 million workers who are unemployed and millions more in poverty, and that should be our primary national discussion.

Yet we’ve gone off, we keep moving away from a real, strong, and important discussion about jobs and job creation.

Tavis: This is woefully unfair to you to ask you a question about the other issue you raise in this study, unequal schools, but what say you all these years after the March on Washington, all these years after Brown v Board and Plessy vs. Ferguson – all these years later, here we are still dealing with the notion of schools that in many ways are still separate and unequal?

Austin: Right. Again, it’s like the minimum wage. It’s quite shameful that we’re in this situation, and it’s all – the issue of ghettos of poverty and our schools, they’re all tied up to the fact that we still have high levels of segregation for African Americans in this society, and high levels of poverty.

So we need a new commitment to a residential integration, and we all say – everyone says education is the key, but how can education be the key for African Americans when they’re subjected – and Latino Americans, for that matter – when they’re subjected to separate and unequal schooling? There’s a fundamental contradiction there. We have to address this issue.

Tavis: A final quick question – how is it, if we’ve not made gains in 50 years, and to your point tonight we’ve lost ground in many of these areas that you lay out in this report, “The Unfinished March.”

How is it, given that we’ve lost ground in some areas, that you expect that in the near future, much less the distant future, that we can actually turn the tide against these numbers, against this data?

Austin: Well again, it’s – we aren’t going to be able to turn the tide overnight, but little by little, right, in terms of the minimum wage. I think public opinion, the majority of the American public supports increasing it. We have some movement in Congress; we have President Obama saying that it needs to be higher.

So I think that’s something we can make some movements on, and certainly at the state level and at the local level we’ve seen living wage movements that have been effective. So unfortunately, it’s a struggle. Like the civil rights movement, it continues.

Tavis: Right.

Austin: It wasn’t something that occurred in one year. It was decades, and the decades of struggle continues.

Tavis: Dr. Algernon Austin is with the Economic Policy Institute. His latest work is called “The Unfinished March,” which details where we are or are not 50 years after this historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. Austin, thank you for your work, and thank you for coming on to talk to us tonight.

Austin: My pleasure, any time.

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Last modified: August 30, 2013 at 12:36 am