- - Thursday, April 16, 2015

Shortly before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. initiated his “Poor People’s Campaign.” King wanted to gather thousands of poor Americans of all races and house them in tents on the National Mall to bring attention to the issue of poverty. His death put a halt to that effort.

From our current vantage point, King’s campaign might be seen as an early preemptive strike against the huge economic divide today separating America’s haves and have nots. King wanted the government to provide the poorest Americans with a guaranteed income in hopes of alleviating poverty by hoisting the poor up into the middle class.

In today’s political world that idea would never fly with Congress or the many middle-class taxpayers who are feeling the economic pinch in many parts of their lives. However, the economic justice that King sought can still be achieved to a great degree by encouraging and supporting entrepreneurship. In other words, instead of the government providing “fish” in the form of money, housing and food, it would instead teach poor people how to “fish.” For sure, there will always be a need for government assistance with the basic necessities of housing and food for some, but meeting that need not be the most prominent role of government.

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Going beyond the efforts of the Small Business Administration, the government should help stimulate the creation of businesses in poor communities. The government should, in effect, play venture capitalist by providing micro-financing for poor people who want to start day care centers, nursing homes, barbershops and the like. The public return on investment would be fewer poor people who depend on government assistance.

Government microfinancing alone would hardly be sufficient to close the gap between the haves and have nots. To be most effective, government intervention to boost the economic prospects of the poor must begin earlier in their lives, starting with free access to educational opportunity — both academic and vocational. Denmark pays for poor students to attend college. For that motivated person from a family with no history of higher education and whose parents lack the income to support their education, free college education may be just the helping hand he or she needs to pry open the doors of economic opportunity.

Trade school education, especially, should be free for the very poor.  Apprenticeships should be encouraged and paid by the government directly to employers who are seeking qualified and well-trained employees.

Government assistance with education, however, must not turn into prolonged support. It is a one-and-done proposition. Government financial aid should serve as a boost, not a life-long crutch.

According to the Census Bureau, households in the top fifth of income earn nearly half of the nation’s income. The goal should be to narrow the gap between rich and poor; it will never be closed.

Many of the wealthy who have increased their incomes in the past few years did so through gains on the stock market. Most of the poor and middle class do not participate in the stock market.

The government should incentivize business creativity among the poor by providing a boost using capital and training not associated with loans or unfair terms. No one wants to live in poverty, especially the poor. The government has and will always have a role to play in uplifting the poor. But it must get more creative with solutions.

Benjamin A. Davis is the CBS Harold Dow Visiting Professor at the Florida A&M University School of Journalism and Graphic Communications. 

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