photo: Abram, King, Randolph, Lewis, Coleman
Bettmann / Getty

How the Civil-Rights Movement Aimed to End Poverty

“A Freedom Budget for All Americans” proposed spending billions of federal dollars to provide jobs and basic welfare to all citizens.

Editor’s Note: Read The Atlantic’s special coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

Image above (left to right): Morris Abram, Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, William T. Coleman

In the fall of 1965, after the Voting Rights Act passed, the coalition of black, socialist, and progressive leaders who had come together to organize 1963’s March on Washington joined together again to create an ambitious policy document with no less a goal than ending poverty in the United States without cost to taxpayers. First released in 1966, it proposed using strong economic growth to provide a federal jobs guarantee, universal health care, and a basic income. This executive summary of the full report, published in 1967, was endorsed by more than 100 signatories and was distributed in black neighborhoods.

The Atlantic has annotated the budget to show how its goals have been met or—in more cases—missed in the half century since then.


I believe, and profoundly hope, that from this day forth the opponents of social progress can take comfort no longer, for not since the March on Washington has there been such broad sponsorship and enthusiastic support for any undertaking as has been mobilized on behalf of “The Freedom Budget for All Americans.”

These forces have not come together to demand help for the Negro. Rather, we meet on a common ground of determination that in this, the richest and most productive society ever known to man, the scourge of poverty can and must be abolished—not in some distant future, not in this generation, but within the next ten years!

The tragedy is that the workings of our economy so often pit the white poor and the black poor against each other at the bottom of society. The tragedy is that groups only one generation removed from poverty themselves, haunted by the memory of scarcity and fearful of slipping back, step on the fingers of those struggling up the ladder.

And the tragedy is that not only the poor, the nearly poor, and the once poor, but all Americans, are the victims of our failure as a nation to distribute democratically the fruits of our abundance. For, directly or indirectly, not one of us is untouched by the steady spread of slums, the decay of our cities, the segregation and overcrowding of our public schools, the shocking deterioration of our hospitals, the violence and chaos in our streets, the idleness of able-bodied men deprived of work, and the anguished demoralization of our youth.

For better or worse, we are one nation and one people. We shall solve our problems together or together we shall enter a new era of social disorder and disintegration.

What we need is an overall plan of attack.

This is what the “Freedom Budget” is. It is not visionary or utopian. It is feasible. It is concrete. It is specific. It is quantitative. It talks dollars and cents. It sets goals and priorities. It tells how these can be achieved. And it places the responsibility for leadership with the Federal Government, which alone has the resources equal to the task.

The “Freedom Budget” is not a call for a handout. It is a challenge to the best traditions and possibilities of America. It is a call to those who have grown weary of slogans and gestures to rededicate themselves to the cause of social reconstruction. It is a plea to men of good will to give tangible substance to long-proclaimed ideals.

A. Philip Randolph
President, A. Philip Randolph Institute
October 26, 1966


After many years of intense struggle in the courts, in legislative halls, and on the streets, we have achieved a number of important victories. We have come far in our quest for respect and dignity. But we have far to go.

The long journey ahead requires that we emphasize the needs of all America’s poor, for there is no way merely to find work, or adequate housing, or quality-integrated schools for Negroes alone. We shall eliminate slums for Negroes when we destroy ghettos and build new cities for all. We shall eliminate unemployment for Negroes when we demand full and fair employment for all. We shall produce an educated and skilled Negro mass when we achieve a twentieth century educational system for all.

This human rights emphasis is an integral part of the Freedom Budget and sets, I believe, a new and creative tone for the great challenge we yet face.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference fully endorses the Freedom Budget and plans to expend great energy and time in working for its implementation.

It is not enough to project the Freedom Budget. We must dedicate ourselves to the legislative task to see that it is immediately and fully achieved. I pledge myself to this task and will urge all others to do likewise. The Freedom Budget is essential if the Negro people are to make further progress. It is essential if we are to maintain social peace. It is a political necessity. It is a moral commitment to the fundamental principles on which this nation was founded.

Martin Luther King
October 26, 1966


The Freedom Budget is a practical, step-by-step plan for wiping out poverty in America during the next 10 years.

It will mean more money in your pocket. It will mean better schools for your children. It will mean better homes for you and your neighbors. It will mean clean air to breathe and comfortable cities to live in. It will mean adequate medical care when you are sick.

So where does the “Freedom” come in?

For the first time, everyone in America who is fit and able to work will have a job. For the first time, everyone who can’t work, or shouldn’t be working, will have an income adequate to live in comfort and dignity. And that is freedom. For freedom from want is the basic freedom from which all others flow.

This nation has learned that it must provide freedom for all if any of us is to be free. We have learned that half-measures are not enough. We know that continued unfair treatment of part of our people breeds misery and waste that are both morally indefensible and a threat to all who are better off.

As A. Philip Randolph put it: “Here in these United States, where there can be no economic or technical excuse for it, poverty is not only a private tragedy but, in a sense, a public crime. It is above all a challenge to our morality.”

The Freedom Budget would make that challenge the lever we can grasp to wipe out poverty in a decade.

Pie in the sky?

Not on your life. Just simple recognition of the fact that we as a nation never had it so good. That we have the ability and the means to provide adequately for everyone. That simple justice requires us to see that everyone—white or black; in the city or on the farm; fisherman or mountaineer—may have his share in our national wealth.

The moral case for the Freedom Budget is compelling.

In a time of unparalleled prosperity, there are 34 million Americans living in poverty. Another 28 million live just on the edge, with income so low that any unexpected expense or loss of income could thrust them into poverty.

Almost one-third of our nation lives in poverty or want. They are not getting their just share of our national wealth.

Just as compelling, this massive lump of despair stands as a threat to our future prosperity. Poverty and want breed crime, disease and social unrest. We need the potential purchasing and productive power the poor would achieve, if we are to continue to grow and prosper.

In short, for good times to continue—and get better—we must embark immediately on a program that will fairly and indiscriminately provide a decent living for all Americans …

The Freedom Budget shows how to do all this without a raise in taxes and without a single make-work job—by planning prudently NOW to use the economic growth of the future, and with adequate attention to our international commitments.

The key is jobs.

We can all recognize that the major cause of poverty could be eliminated, if enough decently paying jobs were available for everyone willing and able to work. And we can also recognize that, with enough jobs for all, a basic cause of discrimination among job-seekers would automatically disappear.

What we must also recognize is that we now have the means of achieving complete employment—at no increased cost, with no radical change in our economic system, and at no cost to our present national goals—if we are willing to commit ourselves totally to this achievement.

That is what the Freedom Budget is all about.

It asks that we unite in insisting that the nation plan now to use part of its expected economic growth to eliminate poverty.

Where will the jobs come from? What will we use for money?

If all our nation’s wealth were divided equally among all us Americans, each share would be worth roughly $3,500. Of this, we grant to the Federal government a slice equal to roughly $500 in the form of taxes, leaving us an average of about $3,000 to spend on our other needs.

If our nation’s productivity continues growing at the same rate as in recent years—and it will if the Freedom Budget is adopted—each share will grow to about $5,000. Thus, the Federal government’s slice will grow to $700, with the present Federal tax structure, and we will still have $4,300 left for our other needs.

What the Freedom Budget proposes is this: Budget a fraction of the $200 increase in Federal tax revenues to provide jobs for all who can work and adequate income of other types for those who cannot.

No doles. No skimping on national defense. No tampering with private supply and demand.

Just an enlightened self-interest, using what we have in the best possible way.

By giving the poor a chance to become dignified wage earners, we will be generating the money to finance the improvements we all need—rich and poor alike. And we would be doing it by making new jobs with new money, so that no one who is now earning his own living would suffer.

The Freedom Budget recognizes that the Federal government must take the lead in attaining the eradication of poverty.

The Federal government alone represents all 200 million American individuals. It alone has the resources for a comprehensive job [guarantee]. And it has the responsibility for fulfilling the needs which are the basis for the Freedom Budget plan.

First, here’s where the jobs would be coming from:

  • Right now, the nation should begin budgeting to replace the 9.3 million “seriously deficient” housing units that make living in them a misery and form slums that are a blight upon our land.
              The housing program contained in the Freedom Budget would have practically all Americans decently housed by 1975—while providing a wide range of jobs for the unemployed in housing construction and urban redevelopment.
  • Critical shortages of water and power persist in many highly populated areas. Air and waters remain polluted. Recreation facilities are unavailable for those who need them most.
              The Freedom Budget proposes the creation of millions of jobs in a program that will correct these pressing problems.
  • We need, at a conservative estimate, 100,000 new public classrooms a year for the next six years, as well as considerable expansion of our institutions of higher learning.
              Only the Federal government can meet the largest share of these needs, as well as providing for the hundreds of thousands of new teachers who also will be needed.
  • We must double our rate of hospital construction if we are to keep up with our minimum requirements in this field, and we must expand rehabilitation and outpatient facilities.

As these and other programs swell the number of productive workers, cut down unemployment and increase consumption, the private sector of our national economy will inevitably grow also.

The Freedom Budget recognizes that full employment by itself is not enough to eradicate poverty. Therefore, it also proposes—and budgets for—a $2-an-hour Federal minimum wage covering everyone within Federal jurisdiction; a new farm program to provide adequate income to the 43 per cent of farm families who now live in poverty; and immediate improvements in Social Security, welfare, unemployment compensation, workmen’s compensation and other programs designed to support those who cannot or should not work.

Where will the money come from?

The Freedom Budget recognizes that we cannot spend what we do not produce. It also recognizes that we must spend wisely what we do produce.

It proposes that a portion of our future growth—one thirteenth of what can reasonably be expected to be available—be earmarked for the eradication of poverty. The Freedom Budget proposed outlay of $185 billion in 10 years sounds like a great deal of money, and it is a great deal of money.

But it will come from the expansion of our economy that will in part be the result of wise use of that very $185 billion. It will build homes and schools, provide recreation areas and hospitals. It will train teachers and nurses.

It will provide adequate incomes to millions who now do not have them. And those millions will in turn buy goods they cannot now buy.

Magazine Cover image

Explore the KING Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

So the wage earner of today will benefit as well. His earnings will go up and his enjoyment of life will be increased. The opportunities for private enterprise will increase.

The breeding grounds of crime and discontent will be diminished in the same way that draining a swamp cuts down the breeding of mosquitoes, and the causes of discrimination will be considerably reduced.

But the Freedom Budget cannot become reality without a national effort. It requires a concentrated commitment by all the people of America, expressed in concrete goals and programs of the Federal Government. These goals and programs must encourage to the utmost the efforts of state and local governments and private enterprise.

It is not lack of good-will that has prevented the achievement of these great goals in the past. All of us, 200 million strong, are united in our willingness to share the abundance of America in equal impartiality with our fellows, and to grant equal opportunities to all.

What we must do—and what the Freedom Budget provides—is to express that will in the most direct, quickest and fairest way.

The Freedom Budget, then, is a new call to arms for a final assault on injustice. It is a rallying cry we cannot fail to heed.

This annotation of the 1967 executive summary of the full 1966 “Freedom Budget” report appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “A ‘Freedom Budget’ for All Americans.”