“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
— The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Looking back on the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (http://www.kinginstitute.info/), we see that many of his primary concerns remain with us today. The slain civil rights leader sought to raise awareness of the inequality, poverty, hunger, and economic injustice that marred his times. We don’t have to look far to see the struggle remains on so many fronts.
The number of homeless people in America has climbed steadily since the 1980s. Locally there is a one-night count every year around this time that has sadly become known as the Homeless Census. Boston last year counted 182 homeless people on the street in one night, in addition to nearly 7,371 in shelters. Cambridge last winter counted 346 homeless individuals, comprised of a street count of 52 individuals, a shelter count of 214 individuals and 80 individuals in transitional housing.
The state’s effort to end homelessness – by offering rental assistance to put the homeless back into housing – was overwhelmed by demand. What started out as a sound and humane policy shift had to stop accepting new applicants because of the number of requests for help.
Hunger is rampant. Nationally, a survey of 29 cities found hunger had risen in most of them in the last year and is largely expected to increase in 2012. Eighty-six percent of the cities reported that requests for emergency food aid had increased in the last year — Boston and Salt Lake City showed the second-sharpest increase, both at 35 percent.
Poverty levels are up. Food stamp usage is up. Unemployment remains high. Wages are stagnant, and the income gap is at historic levels. Affordable housing remains scarce.
And yet our politicians continue to demonize those in need of the social safety net while propping up corporate welfare and tax breaks for the rich in the name of job creation.
Today, Dewey Square is a cold and wind-swept plaza, and it’s back to business as usual in the city’s financial district.
But we can be grateful that over a few short months, the Occupy movement accomplished what the homeless and their advocates have been unable to do for some time – steer our national conversation back to the issues of economic fairness and equal opportunity.
A system that gives us a government beholden to corporate and special interests, and economic insecurity for the rest of us, is a system that isn’t working and is in need of fundamental change. After years of static and empty rhetoric from the right, Boston’s Occupiers and their counterparts around the world have helped to move the conversation back to the middle.