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Charity is not a substitute for justice

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 6/15/2015, 8:30 a.m.
In his speech the night before his murder, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. repeated the Biblical parable of the Good ...

(NNPA) – In his speech the night before his murder, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. repeated the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan who stopped and helped the desperate traveler who had been beaten, robbed and left half-dead as he journeyed along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The Good Samaritan is traditionally considered a model of charity for his willingness to treat a stranger as a neighbor and friend. King agreed that we are all called to follow his example and serve those around us who need help. But he reminded us that true compassion – true justice – requires also attacking the forces that leave others in need in the first place.

Many of the cracks in America’s edifice King identified over a half-century ago are deeper today. CEO compensation and corporate greed and welfare have skyrocketed to morally obscene levels while middle-class and minimum-wage workers and people seeking work have been left behind. In 2012-2013, 4.9 million American households, including 1.3 million with children, had no cash income, relying only on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to stave off the wolves of hunger – a program Republican majorities in both houses of Congress seek to shred while increasing government welfare to the wealthiest individuals and corporations. Countless Black, Latino and Native American youths see no hope for the future because there are no jobs for them and our schools are not preparing the majority of them for the jobs of the future.

Government safety-net programs have lifted many millions but not all children out of poverty. Investments in nine federal programs that help make work pay, increase employment and meet children’s basic needs could lift 60 percent of our 14.7 million poor children out of poverty now; instead these programs are under systematic attack today and we must reject proposals that treat our children so unfairly while others lavish tens of billions on the powerful and rich.

With true structural change there would be far less need for charity; without it the very best charitable efforts will never be enough. How many private foundations could make up for the denial of Medicaid or for the looming cuts in food stamps and other safety net programs? Yet like so many other prophets, King’s voice was often at odds with leaders or conveniently left unheard by citizens in his own land.

During King’s lifetime, President Lyndon Johnson’s great War on Poverty attempted to address some of the inequalities in the United States that needed redressing and restructuring. But Richard Nixon sent a very different message as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in August 1968, already criticizing Johnson’s new anti-poverty efforts.

When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, he gave a similar message about letting people take care of themselves – all the more charged because he chose to deliver it at an appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the county where three young civil rights workers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – were murdered in June 1964.