June 11, 2016

ML King understood the relationship between economics and ethnicity

Jordan Weissmann, Atlantic

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.

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:

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.

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