One of the more under-appreciated aspects of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy is that by the end of his career, he had fashioned himself into a crusader against poverty, not just among blacks, but all Americans. In the weeks leading to his assassination, the civil rights leader 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." He was killed before he could see the effort through.
So what, exactly, was King's economic dream? In short, he 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 it's sometimes called today—is not the same as a higher minimum wage. Instead, it's a policy designed to make sure each American 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 matter how strongly the economy might grow, it would never eliminate poverty entirely, or provide jobs for all. 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
Note, King did not appear to be arguing that Washington should simply pay people not to work. Rather, he seemed to believe it was the government's responsibility to create jobs for those left behind by the economy (from his language here, it's not hard to imagine he might even have supported a work requirement, in some circumstances), but above all else, to ensure a basic standard of living.
More than basic, actually. King 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 it feasible? Maybe. He noted an estimate by John Kenneth Galbraith that the government could create a generous guaranteed income with $20 billion, which, as the economist put it, 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, ensuring every single American a middle class living 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, 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.