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.