Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Solution to Poverty

In his final book, the civil rights leader laid out his vision for a universal basic income that would raise all Americans into the middle class. 
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When Americans stop to commemorate Dr. Matin Luther King, Jr. each year, we tend to do a great disservice to the man's legacy by glossing over his final act as an anti-poverty crusader. In the weeks leading to his assassination, King had been hard at work organizing a new march on Washington known as the "Poor People's Campaign." The goal was to erect a tent city on the National Mall that, as Mark Engler described it for The Nation in 2010, would "dramatize the reality of joblessness and deprivation by bringing those excluded from the economy to the doorstep of the nation's leaders." The great civil rights leader was killed before he could see the effort through.

So what, exactly, was the reverend's economic dream? In short, King wanted the government to eradicate poverty by providing every American a guaranteed, middle-class income—an idea that, while light-years beyond the realm of mainstream political conversation today, had actually come into vogue by the late 1960s.

To be crystal clear, a guaranteed income—or a universal basic income, as the concept is sometimes called today—is not the same as a higher minimum wage. Rather, the idea is to make sure each household has a certain concrete sum of money to spend each year. One modern version of the policy would give every adult a tax credit that would essentially become a cash payment for families that don't pay much tax. Conservative thinker Charles Murray has advocated replacing the whole welfare state by handing every grown American a full $10,000.   

King had an even more expansive vision. He laid out the case for the guaranteed income in his final book, 1967's Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Washington's previous efforts to fight poverty, he concluded, had been "piecemeal and pygmy." The government believed it could lift up the poor by attacking the root causes of their impoverishment one by one—by providing better housing, better education, and better support for families. But these efforts had been too small and too disorganized. Moreover, he wrote, "the programs of the past all have another common failing—they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else."

It was time, he believed, for a more straightforward approach: the government needed to make sure every American had a reasonable income. 

In part, King's thinking seemed to stem from a sense that no amount of economic growth could provide jobs for all or eliminate poverty. As he put it:

We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.

[...]

The problem indicates that our emphasis must be two-fold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.

In other words, King believed that the government was obligated to provide both work and income for those inevitably left behind by capitalism's economic engine. Looking back from today's vantage point, one can even imagine that King might have supported attaching a work requirement to such a program, so long as everyone could be guaranteed a job. 

King's goal wasn't merely to alleviate poverty. Rather, it was to raise each American into the middle class. He argued that the guaranteed income should be "pegged to the median of society," and rise automatically along with the U.S. standard of living. "To guarantee an income at the floor would simply perpetuate welfare standards and freeze into the society poverty conditions," he wrote. Was such a plan feasible? Yes, he argued, noting an estimate by John Kenneth Galbraith that the government could create a generous guaranteed income with $20 billion a year. As the economist put it, that was "not much more than we will spend the next fiscal year to rescue freedom and democracy and religious liberty as these are defined by 'experts' in Vietnam."

As practical economics today, ensuring every single American a middle-class life through government redistribution and work programs seems a bit fanciful. The closest such an idea ever really came to fruition, meanwhile, was President Nixon's proposed Family Assistance Plan, which would have ended welfare and instead guaranteed families of four $1,600 a year, at a time when the median household income was about $7,400

But as a statement of values—that it is not merely enough to lay out the tools of self-improvement in front of the poor, that such a rich society should provide every citizen some reasonable standard of living—King's notion remains powerful. So with that in mind, I'll leave you with man's own words. 

The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.


This post is based on a version we originally posted on August 28, 2013. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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