The Martin Luther King Jr we don’t remember – socio-economic critic, anti-capitalist and supporter of a Guaranteed Income
Martin Luther King Jr, in his capacity as critic of racism and deliverer of the famous “I have a dream” speech, is one of the most well known and rightly celebrated figures of the 1960s civil rights movement. However, the cause Dr King devoted the last years of his life to, the abolition of poverty amongst black and white poor, and the methods he endorsed to accomplish this, are far less well known. This is the Martin Luther King Jr I wish to recall in this post.
During these final years, Dr King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founded the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought to assist both black and white poor to emancipate themselves from poverty. What solutions did Dr King advocate to poverty? In his own words (from his final book Where do we go From Here? Chaos or Community?):
“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
A Guaranteed Income (Also called Basic Income or Citizen’s Income) is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement. In other words, Dr King argued that since poverty is caused by lack of money, it is solved by giving poor people money, so that they are no longer poor! Laughably simple and naive? I don’t think so – Dr King elaborated upon the philosophy behind guaranteed incomes in this speech. Here is an extensive quotation:
“Now we must develop progress, or rather, a program—and I can’t stay on this long—that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. Now, early in the century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s abilities and talents. And in the thinking of that day, the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber. We’ve 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, I hope, 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 twofold: 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 1879 Henry George anticipated this state of affairs when he wrote in Progress and Poverty:
“The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is not the work of slaves driven to their tasks either by the, that of a taskmaster or by animal necessities. It is the work of men who somehow find a form of work that brings a security for its own sake and a state of society where want is abolished.”
Work of this sort could be enormously increased, and we are likely to find that the problem of housing, education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor, transformed into purchasers, will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.
Beyond these advantages, a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife, and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.
Now, our country can do this. John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth. [applause]”
Perhaps if we are serious about remembering and celebrating the life, causes and non-violent methods of resistance of Martin Luther King Jr, we should resurrect his cause of the abolition of poverty through the Guaranteed Income? It is easy and comfortable for us to remember and celebrate the causes for which he helped achieve success, but I feel a more fitting tribute to the man is to continue fighting for the causes where success was not achieved, then or today.
I wish Dr King were alive today to comment on the bank bailouts and economic crisis – we are in need of such guiding lights in these dark times. Watching a snippet of this speech [read a full transcript here], I feel he would call upon on us all not to adjust ourselves to the government’s “solution” of austerity amidst affluence, but to rail against it using non-violent forms of civil disobedience. So I end by quoting the linked snippet, with the final sentence in bold to highlight the sort of verbal ammunition he would have in store for our bankers and politicians:
“Now of course we all want to live a well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But as I move toward my conclusion I would like to say to you today, in a very honest manner, that there are some things in our society and some thing in our world, for which I am proud to be maladjusted and I call upon all men of good will to be maladjusted to these things until the good societies realise.
I must honestly say to you that I never intend to adjust myself to racial segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of God’s children smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.”