Is It Time for a Civil-Rights Movement for the Poor?

One scholar makes the argument that the nation needs a massive, grassroots push for policies that will make the American Dream a reality for all.

Frank Franklin II / AP

America’s poor don’t have much of a chance. Housing policies segregate them into neighborhoods with bad schools and high crime, college is out of reach, and wages aren’t rising with the cost of inflation.

“Poor kids, through no fault of their own, are less prepared by their families, their schools, and their communities to develop their God-given talents as fully as rich kids,” Richard Putnam wrote, in his book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, published in March.

So what is to be done?

Richard Kahlenberg, of the Century Foundation, has a plan: Create a new civil-rights movement for the poor and working class. This movement would push for policy changes that will make it easier for poor Americans to succeed, Kahlenberg says.

“If you look back at the last 50 years, I think one of the things we can be most proud of is the civil-rights revolution and the way that it changed our country for the better in really profound ways,” he told me. “At the same time, we’ve seen our economic divide grow much worse than it was a half century ago. So it seems to me there may be some lessons from the policies adopted as a result of the civil-rights movement in housing and education and employment that could be applied to our economic situation.”

To be sure, a movement to increase wages for poor Americans already exists in the Fight for $15. But Kahlenberg’s proposals, laid out in the issue brief, A New Era of Civil Rights, go beyond wages. Here are a few of his proposals:


To start with, Kahlenberg calls for a new Fair Housing Act that would make it illegal for municipalities to employ the type of exclusionary zoning practices—ones that ban apartments of a certain size or require a minimum lot size—that make it impossible for the poor or working class to live in better-resourced communities. Such a proposal may appeal to conservatives, since it requires the government to get out of the way and allow developers to build whatever they want, where they want.

This already happened, to a degree, in New Jersey, when a landmark New Jersey Supreme Court decision ruled that local zoning laws excluded low-income families, violating the state constitution. As a result, an affordable-housing community was built in wealthy Mount Laurel, with dramatically positive results for residents and no negative impact on the community, according to work by the Princeton sociologist Doug Massey.

Another approach (and one that conservatives are sure to like less) would be for cities and towns to also make an effort to require more inclusionary zoning, Kahlenberg says, having developers set aside a portion of new housing units for low- and moderate-income families. About 10 percent of the population lives in cities and states with mandatory inclusionary-zoning requirements.

The federal government should also expand the Moving to Opportunity Program, which moves families from poor neighborhoods to areas with better schools and lower poverty levels. Recent research from Harvard has shown that the program had better outcomes than originally thought: Income for adults who moved as children was 31 percent higher than for kids who stayed, and people who moved as kids were 16 percent more likely to attend college.


Racial inequity in public schools was one of the things that motivated the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit. More schools are racially integrated today than in 1954, but many school districts are still economically segregated, Kahlenberg told me. In Louisville, for instance, which has made dramatic progress in integrating its schools, Kahlenberg found a school that was half black and half white, but 100 percent poor, which isn’t ideal for any student.

“A racially-integrated school that is economically segregated doesn’t take us far enough,” he told me.

Some school districts have already started trying to integrate schools by socioeconomic status, using voluntary school-choice programs and creating magnet theme schools. Kahlenberg recommends expanding those efforts, and making sure charter schools try to be socioeconomically integrated, too.

Higher Education

Race-based affirmative-action programs for college admissions lasted a long time, but might be on their way out amongst political pressure and court challenges.  Between 1996 and 2012, eight states, including California, Michigan, and Nebraska, banned racial preferences in public-university admissions. Given this, public universities should seek to implement class-based affirmative-action policies.

Some already have—Texas’s “Top Ten” program automatically admits students of the top tier to every public university in the state, for instance, which produces economic diversity.

The Workforce

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 tried to prevent racial discrimination in the workplace and open opportunities for minority candidates. That should be amended to protect workers against discrimination for trying to form a union, Kahlenberg argues here and in his 2012 book, Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right. It’s not impossible—just yesterday, Senator Patty Murray and Representative Bobby Scott proposed legislation aimed at strengthening protections for people who choose to organize.

It’s unlikely to go anywhere, but, Kahlenberg argues, “boosting the ranks of unionized workers, in turn, could help workers bargain for their fair share of productivity gains, which would help reduce income inequality.”

Kahlenberg’s prescriptions for reducing inequality won’t appeal to everyone. He admits that some of the policy solutions are likely to be enacted first in more liberal cities and states that have already passed progressive minimum-wage laws. But his paper should be a reminder that it may be time to stop talking about the death of the American dream, and time to start doing something about it.

“We’ve reached such an extreme point of inequality in our society—you even have people like Jeb Bush talking about we have too much inequality,” he told me. “Something has to be done.”