“A second evil which plagues the modern world is that of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, it projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles in lands and villages all over the world,” said Martin Luther King Jr. in his Nobel Lecture in 1964. “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”
The first “evil,” of course, was racial injustice, and King was aware that poverty and economic exclusion of minority groups served as another avenue of discrimination. From his graduate school days, he’d been concerned with unjust wealth imbalances and had a “pretty developed egalitarian vision,” says Thomas Jackson, a historian whose book explores King’s economic dream. But it wasn’t until the later stages of his life that King turned his main focus to economic justice, when it became clear that, for all its benefits, the Civil Rights Movement had not changed the day-to-day economic circumstances of Black people. He argued on several occasions that one of the tools that would help eradicate poverty was a guaranteed income (GI), an unconditional payout for poorer families, intended to supplement incomes so that everyone could live at a middle-class standard.
That’s a policy idea that suddenly has momentum again today, as cities across the U.S. are implementing guaranteed income pilots, mainly through Mayors For a Guaranteed Income, a coalition that’s “rooted in Dr. King’s legacy.” The founder, Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, California, runs an ongoing pilot that guarantees $500 per month to 125 families. At the same time, direct-cash plans are now being proposed across party lines on the federal level, in response to the current economic downturn, and just months after a presidential candidate ran on that single issue.
“The 1960s is the last time we had this big sweep of interest,” says Leah Hamilton, an associate professor of social work at Appalachian State University and a basic income researcher. In the later part of the decade, Democratic leaders on the left, including Robert F. Kennedy, were reacting to the failures of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, as the government became more consumed with the escalating Vietnam War. In a 1966 Senate hearing, King testified on the moral need to abolish poverty; keeping people in destitution was “asocial, cruel, and blind as the practice of cannibalism.” In the Senate, he made the case for a solution. “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most revolutionary—the guaranteed annual income.”
King wrote concretely about GI in his final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, and in his corresponding address at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention in 1967. “We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income,” he said in the speech. “We must create full employment, or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other.” He also spent his final years planning the Poor People’s Campaign, a demand for an “economic bill of rights” for the poor, to culminate in a march on Washington—which was set for a date that proved to be two months after King’s assassination. Among the demands was a GI, “pegged to the median income of society, not the lowest levels of income.”
Along with King, notable economists of the decade started to push the idea: liberal ones such as John Kenneth Galbraith, who, as King noted in his speech, said an annual GI could be done “for about twenty billion dollars a year.” (If the country could spend $35 billion “to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam,” King added, this was certainly possible.) Even conservative economists, such as Milton Friedman, favored the idea, though his plan was an alternative to social welfare programs and a measure to place America on a path toward a total free-market system.
“As wild as that seems in our imagination now,” Hamilton says, several GI pilot programs happened across the country in the ’60s. On a national level, after King’s death, President Nixon put forward his Family Assistance Plan, a GI proposal for poor families of $1,600 per year, regardless of employment status. It was intended to put an end to the rioting that continued after King’s assassination, Jackson says. But, even after many revisions and attempts to appease conservatives under a “family values” guise, it failed in the Senate in 1972. Due to rising concerns about Vietnam, Nixon’s resignation, and a changing political tide, GI was essentially shelved in the U.S. discourse—until now.
Mayors for a Guaranteed Income launched in June last year, and one of the members, Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton, California, recently launched a pilot in her city, the Compton Pledge, which will send checks to 800 residents every two weeks for two years ($600 to people with dependents and $300 to single recipients). In Compton, the poverty rate hit 20% at the height of the pandemic, up from about 7% before. The program is specifically targeting those hardest hit by the pandemic, but also those living at or below the poverty line and those ineligible for standard government aid, such as undocumented immigrants and formerly incarcerated people.
Brown says that targeting, which King envisioned, is essential as an antipoverty measure. “Economically, it makes sense to directly invest in places that need the most investment,” she says. She says she was influenced by King’s Poor People’s Campaign. “Dr. King understood that establishing a basic standard of living, and a guaranteed income floor, is essential for upholding human dignity and freedom and eradicating poverty,” she says. King also distrusted the fragmented, unreliable nature of social services. “In Mississippi, good luck if you’re Black, getting on public assistance,” Jackson says.
Hamilton, who was formerly a welfare researcher, explains that social safety nets are still weak for Black communities because of a hangover from the past. “There’s a really long history of egregiously racist practices in American welfare,” she says. For instance, Hamilton explains the “man of the house rule,” whereby authorities conducted midnight raids in women’s houses, and if a man was caught in the house, the woman would be denied welfare. Unmarried women with children would also be denied assistance, and welfare offices in rural areas would often close during the harvest season. Along with barriers to jobs for Black people, this ensured the community was locked out of both employment and assistance.
Then, the Reagan era emphasized the myth of the “welfare queen” and slashed benefits programs, culminating in Clinton’s effective dismantling of the safety net in 1996. It hasn’t recovered, and the white-Black wealth gap has persisted. So, the direct investment that Brown favors could be a solution, because it dodges the welfare dependency myth that’s so entrenched in American minds.
But in recent years, the idea has regained traction. Most notably, in 2020, Andrew Yang based his presidential campaign on a basic income, which is slightly different: unlike GI, it’s not targeted to the poorest, but available for everyone regardless of socioeconomic background—which some argue is a way to prevent the system from subtly discriminating against minorities (Yang’s proposal, like Friedman’s, involved cutting some social services for cash recipients). Yang met with some mockery, which King noticed in his era: “Early in the century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility,” he said. Now, Yang has brought a slightly tweaked check plan—$2,000 and $5,000 for the city’s 500,000 poorest residents—to his campaign for New York City mayor. He’s received an endorsement from Martin Luther King III.
A Republican administration sent out COVID-19 stimulus checks, and now a Democratic administration is seeking to do the same. And Senator Mitt Romney just introduced a childcare plan that proposes sending $250 to $350 to families for each child, plus a $1,400 payout for new parents before their child is born. That plan, Hamilton says, is “as close to a universal basic income proposal as we’ve seen in a bipartisan way since the 1960s.”
Fifty years on, the renewed conversation about extra cash may finally reset a route to King’s economic dream. “The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands,” King said in 1967. “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.”