It’s a long road to redressing inequality

A half-century ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the stilted rhetoric used use to talk about public spending to promote the social good:

Whenever the government provides opportunities in privileges for white people and rich people they call it “subsidized” when they do it for Negro and poor people they call it “welfare.” The fact that is the everybody in this country lives on welfare. Suburbia was built with federally subsidized credit. And highways that take our white brothers out to the suburbs were built with federally subsidized money to the tune of 90 percent. Everybody is on welfare in this country. The problem is that we all to often have socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise capitalism for the poor. That’s the problem.

“The Minister to the Valley,” February 23, 1968, From the archives of the SCLC.*


At City Observatory, we can add nothing to the eloquence of his analysis.  What we can do, in our fashion, is to simply add two data points that confirm that, fifty years later, too little has changed in this regard.

Today, the federal government spends nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars on housing subsidies each year, in the form of tax breaks for mortgage interest, property taxes, capital gains, and the exclusion of imputed rental income.  Nearly all of the value of this goes to the nation’s highest income households. Meanwhile, only about 20 percent of low income households eligible for rent subsidies get anything from a chronically under-funded voucher program.

Over the past decade, Congress has repeatedly bailed out the Highway Trust Fund with general fund monies, to the tune of $140 billion.  We continue to build new highways, chiefly for the benefit of those who own cars and live in suburbs, while transit systems that provide critical access to the poor are falling apart.

The problems that Dr. King spoke to then are still with us today. His words are an inspiration to our continued efforts to redress these inequities and build a fairer, more just world.

* A hat tip to @kaseyklimes for reminding us of the quotation and sleuthing its provenance.