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Obama, Congress and a Bigger Dream
President Obama's full speech on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (Video credit: the White House)
Yesterday, President Obama ascended the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, to deliver a speech. The speech was given at nearly the exact place and time as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s monumental “I Have a Dream” speech, exactly 50 years later. An irresistable national discussion led up to that moment, comparing the two men and the two Americas of then and now.
Obama acknowledged the determination and resilience of King and his generation, especially those "whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV." He thanked them for dreaming big enough to envision, 50 years later, a black president and a more self-aware country that has started its journey toward equality.
The U.S. Census Bureau released a report last week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s speech and celebrate the progress made since 1963. Here are a few examples of that progress:
- The median income of black Americans has nearly doubled.
- The black poverty rate has fallen by 14 percent.
- Twenty-six percent of blacks had high school diplomas in 1964; 85 percent did in 2012.
- The number of black college graduates jumped from 4 percent to 21 percent.
- The proportion of the African American population holding public office has more than tripled.
President Obama is arguably the most visible symbol of all that is to be celebrated. But yesterday he bore the challenge of going beyond one dream fulfilled to face the many deferred.
In many ways, African Americans still live on the margins of American society. Though the black poverty rate has declined, in 2011 it was still 27.6 percent — more than double the white poverty rate. It was even higher among black children — 37.4 percent lived in poverty. Food security (hunger) rates track the poverty numbers closely. And the unemployment rate is just as disturbing; today it is twice as high for blacks as for whites, and—reflecting the nation’s painfully slow recovery from the Great Recession-- even higher now than in 1963.
Not surprisingly, educational outcomes for blacks tell a similar story, with whites nearly twice as likely to graduate from college as blacks. And we know that poverty, hunger, and unemployment are inextricably tied to a student’s educational outcomes.
Rarely mentioned in the recent media coverage is the full name of the March on Washington: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
As the president acknowledged, it is good jobs that all Americans, blacks especially, need most today to make the climb out of poverty and hunger. President Obama and Congress can do a lot to create jobs through policy. They can invest, first in the American people by providing more accessible high-quality education, and second in national infrastructure that can open opportunities for the private sector to drive economic growth. Yes, all investments demand an upfront cost, but if the investment isn’t made now, the cost to generations of Americans will be far greater. We can do the right thing in a fiscally responsible way.
The president and congress can and must choose to dream even bigger than Dr. King. We have all the policy tools we need to end U.S. poverty and hunger in less than a generation. Will an elementary school student who watches today’s speech on TV be the one to stand at the Lincoln Memorial in 25 years and celebrate such an achievement?
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