Progress on reducing poverty and racial inequality in the United States is in reverse, according to the co-author of a landmark 1968 study.
Former Sen. Fred Harris co-authored The Kerner Report, which looked at the causes of civil unrest in the 1960s in major U.S. cities, including Chicago. The study outlined how federal and state initiatives to remedy inequality through social services, housing, and educational programs had failed black communities, stating, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
Harris is also co-editor of a new report out this week that says the country has remained segregated along racial lines, he joined WBEZ’s Lisa Labuz to discuss what has happened since 1968. Below are the highlights.
Progress on poverty and racial inequality over the past 50 years
Fred Harris: We made progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty from the time of the report in 1968 for nearly 10 years. And then, that progress stopped, particularly with the advent of the Reagan administration, and eventually was reversed.
Today, there’s millions more people who are in the United States than was true 50 years ago, and poverty’s worse — it’s harder to get out of, it’s deeper for those who are poor, there’s a great deal of inequality and wealth in this country. Our cities and our schools are resegregating. We made progress, but now that progress is really in reverse.
For example, fair housing, desegregation of schools, more affordable and integrated housing. Between blacks and whites, education and achievement was closing and it was closing at such a good pace and trend that if it had continued, right now, there wouldn’t be any achievement gap between black kids and white kids in America.
Recommendations from the 1968 study ‘still relevant’ today
Harris: We cut taxes for rich people and big corporations, and we cut programs that were for the benefit of primarily middle class and poor people. We stopped our efforts at desegregation, and things began to go back the way they had been before. And that’s been the trend since the late ’70s.
All of them are still relevant. What we need to do is we need to see that people have a living wage and that they have jobs. Plenty of jobs that need doing in this country. And we ought to put more investment in them and in people, more investment in free public education from early childhood through college.
‘Race and poverty back on the national agenda’
Harris: We ought to reach new efforts in regard to equality for everybody, no matter what your zip code or your gender or your race or ethnicity. All those things we’ve tried to do before, and we’ve made some progress on them for a while. But now, we need to get race and poverty back on the national agenda and go to work, and we can do that.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire segment.