Addressing the crisis of poverty and hunger in the U.S.

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The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech is rapidly approaching, commemorating the historic Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington.

But 45 years ago, 1968, the year of his assassination, King was waging the Poor People's Campaign to eradicate poverty. He addressed the congregation at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., saying: "We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I've seen it in Latin America; I've seen it in Africa; I've seen this poverty in Asia."

That was March 31, 1968, four days before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to march in solidarity with striking sanitation workers.

The minimum wage that year was at its historic high, in terms of real purchasing power. It was first established in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said, "Our nation so richly endowed with natural resources and with a capable and industrious population should be able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day's pay for a fair day's work."

Forty-five years after King launched his Poor People's Campaign, poverty is again at crisis levels. That all-important bulwark against poverty, the minimum wage, is now $7.25 per hour, a result of a bill signed into law by President George W. Bush. President Barack Obama, when he was first elected, promised a minimum wage of $9.50 by 2011. In his 2013 State of the Union address, having failed to make that goal, he said: "Tonight, let's declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour. This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead."

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader is not impressed by the president's rhetoric. "Has there been a bigger con man in the White House than Barack Obama?" Nader asked angrily. "He hasn't lifted a finger since he made those statements ... he said nothing for four years on raising the minimum wage. He made no pressure on Congress. He hasn't even unleashed people in his own White House on this issue."

Nader is out with a new book, Told You So, which is fiercely critical of the Obama administration on a wide range of issues, from coddling corporate criminals to the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo. He continued, on the minimum wage: "The cruelty is unbelievable here. We are an advanced Third World country. We have great military equipment and science and technology. Half of the people in this country are poor. They can't even pay their bills. They're deep in debt. ... Thirty million workers in this country are making less today than that workers made in 1968, inflation-adjusted. These are the workers who clean up after us, grow our food, serve us in the stores, take care of our ailing grandparents. ... These are the workers that are most underemployed, underinsured. They work in often the most dangerous situations. They don't have unions."

Nader, a four-time presidential candidate, is calling for people to issue a "summons" to their respective members of Congress in the form of a petition obtainable at the website TimeForARaise.org, and to demand public meetings during the congressional recess in August.

And it's not just Ralph Nader. The International Human Rights Clinic at New York University's School of Law has just released a new study, Nourishing Change: Fulfilling the Right to Food in the United States. They report that 50 million individuals -- that's one in six Americans -- live in a household that cannot afford adequate food. Of these, nearly 17 million are children. Despite this, Congress is moving to weaken food security program funding, like food stamps.

King's words from that National Cathedral speech ring true today, as we face again the crisis of poverty and hunger: "There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will."

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,000 stations in North America. She is the co-author of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times best-seller.

Image: Michael Quizon/flickr

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