Governor, legislators dishonor King with budgets that breed division

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a protest march with striking Memphis sanitation workers days before his assasination in 1968.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a protest march with striking Memphis sanitation workers days before his assasination in 1968. Associated Press/Smithsonian

Appropriately, today thousands in Kentucky will honor — through speeches, marches, even thoughtful contemplation — the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for the cause of racial equality.

He spoke eloquently, fought bravely and ultimately gave his life for that cause.

Another aspect of King’s message, particularly in the last years of his life, won’t get so much attention today: economic inequality.

At the time of his death in April, 1968, King was planning a Poor People’s Campaign of a “multiracial army of the poor” that would march on Washington D.C. to push for an “economic bill of rights” that included guarantees of housing, employment and a living wage.

And don’t expect any talk about those issues tomorrow when Gov. Matt Bevin delivers his budget address, unveiling a two-year spending plan for Kentucky state government. Bevin’s budget — indeed, like too many recent Kentucky budgets — will be a road map for greater economic and racial inequality in this state.

As King foresaw, and retired University of Kentucky professor Ron Formisano explains, economic inequality robs individuals of health and hope, and tears at the fabric of society. In Kentucky, where poverty weighs down so many families and communities, it deals especially severe blows to people of color.

▪  Research shows that increased school spending makes it more likely that a poor child will not become a poor adult. Kentucky began to improve those odds after the education and funding reforms of the early ’90s known as KERA.

But budget cuts, increased enrollment and inflation have taken a toll on the resources available to school districts, and achievement gaps have widened along demographic lines. An analysis by the Prichard Committee found that was particularly true when comparing black and white students.

▪  The explosion of criminalization of non-violent offenses and the resulting incarceration have robbed tens of thousands of — mostly poor — Kentuckians of liberty, the ability to earn a living and the right to vote. Here, too, Kentuckians of color are disproportionately affected. Although blacks represent 8 percent of the total population, they account for 22 percent of the inmate population and an astounding 30 percent of the juveniles who are confined by the state.

To compound the problem, the ever-expanding prison budget — criminal justice eats up more of Kentucky’s budget than higher education — robs the state of resources for schools, preschool programs, child-care subsidies, social-service workers and a host of other services that could help reduce inequality and keep people out of the criminal justice system.

The state’s budget is being strangled by a tax system that takes more of their earnings from working people than the wealthy, that taxes cars needed to get to work but not limousine rides to gala events.

But Bevin seems set on leaving the comfortable alone with their tax breaks, instead cutting services that create a path out of poverty.

When the governor and legislators return to work tomorrow, awash in comforting words about racial unity, if they want to honor King, they must answer his call for economic equality.