Tuesday, January 18, 2011

MLK's Other Dream: Economic Justice and a Guaranteed Annual Income

Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of racial equality is close to being a reality. Racism still exists and people of color still face many obstacles, but as our first black President's approval ratings soar after his masterful response to the shooting in Arizona, it is MLK's other dream, of economic equality and justice, that is the dream deferred.

The richest 1% of Americans earn about a quarter of all US income. Corporations had a record year--$1.2 trillion in profits. Wall St. bonuses are up 17%. All while 1 in 6 Americans has no job, real wages haven't increased in 20 years, and someone files for bankruptcy every 20 seconds.

The best way to honor Dr. King may be to take a closer look at a solution to economic inequality that King championed as part of his Poor People's Campaign: the guaranteed annual income.

In MLK's final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), he declared the guaranteed annual income to be the key to abolishing poverty:  "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."

The guaranteed annual income was indeed a "widely discussed measure" in the 1960s. In 1968, James Tobin, Paul Samuelson, John Kenneth Galbraith and another 1,200 economists signed a document calling for Congress to introduce a system of income guarantees and supplements. President Lyndon Johnson appointed a National Commission on Income Maintenance Programs, which recommended a "universal income supplement program" to "provide a base income for any needy family or individual."

In his last presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, King said:

"We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income...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 operations of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will...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 task, by the taskmaster, or by animal necessity. 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 problems of housing and 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 means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts among husbands, wives and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on the 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."

Today the idea of a guaranteed annual income has evolved into the concept of a basic income for all. In addition to eliminating poverty, it would transform life for working class Americans by providing economic freedom and security independent from work and jobs.

To keep MLK's dream of economic justice alive and support the movement for a basic income for all, join the US Basic Income Guarantee Network by emailing us at Karl@Widerquist.com or visiting www.usbig.net.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do you know if the 1968 document of the 1200 economists is public? Can you help me finding it? Thank you very much.

Miguel Horta