MLK's Dream: A Guaranteed Income for All Americans
Poverty had become a central focus for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. He was organizing the "Poor People's Campaign," where he planned to bring the issue of poverty to national attention by creating a tent city on the National Mall. King had come to the conclusion that racial equality could not be achieved in the United States until poverty was eliminated. Part of this vision was to provide every American with a guaranteed middle-class income. He was assassinated before he could see the project to fruition.
Jordan Weissman explains: "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." And while the idea might seem radical today, it was often discussed in the 1960s.
Progressives love to wonder what King would do if he were alive today. His words suggest he would push us beyond the fight for 15, beyond the living wage, to demand that every American received not just a universal basic income but a universal middle class income, pegged to the standard of living.
King said: "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."