Fulfill MLK’s dream of a guaranteed income

Pub date August 27, 2013

OPINION Today, Aug. 28, we mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech at the March on Washington. But we are sobered by the fact that 46 million citizens are living in poverty and that we have become two Americas — one for the rich and one for the rest of us.  

Dr. King had a solution to poverty and to the bleak economic conditions faced by many Americans today. “I am now convinced that the simplest solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a new widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income,” he wrote in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? “A host of psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security.”  

In 1969, a presidential commission recommended, 22-0, that the United States adopt a guaranteed annual income, with no mandatory work requirements, for all citizens in need. The report was buried and forgotten, even though the National Council of Churches, by a vote of 107-1, agreed. So did the Kerner Commission, the California Democratic Council, the Republican Ripon Society, and the 1972 Democratic Party platform.  

Fast forward 50 years and the concept of a guaranteed income — or Basic Income Guarantee — is not discussed much anymore. But it remains, as even the late economist Milton Friedman always maintained, the most practical and sensible way to end poverty in America and provide economic security to all Americans.  

Today we have more than 14 million Americans unemployed with no evidence to back up the claim that we can create jobs for everyone who wants one. Machines are doing work people used to do. Jobs are not coming back and many families teeter on the brink of poverty.  

Relying on jobs and economic growth does not work. Job creation is a completely wrong approach because the world doesn’t need everyone to have a job in order to produce what is needed. We need to rethink the concept of having a job. When we say we need more jobs, what we really mean is we need more money to live on.  

Today there are more than 300 income-tested federal social programs costing more than $400 billion a year. Much of that money goes for administrative expenses, not to the needy.  

Charles Murray, a conservative author whose 1984 book Losing Ground claimed that welfare was doing more harm than good, now agrees with the Rev. King’s approach. Murray calls for giving an annual cash grant of $10,000 — with no work requirement — to every adult over age 21.  

“We still have millions of people without comfortable retirements, without adequate health care, and living in poverty. Only a government can spend so much money so ineffectively. The solution is to give the money to the people,” Murray writes in his book: In Our Hands.  

Indeed, the state of Alaska has given an annual cash grant to its people for the past 30 years of between $800 and $2,000, with no work requirements, reducing poverty and the inequality of income in Alaska.  

The U.S. is a wealthy nation. Our net worth is $58 trillion. That’s an average of $185,000 for each man, woman, and child in the country. A basic income guarantee would establish economic security as a universal right. It will give all of us the assurance that, no matter what happens, we won’t go hungry.  

This year, as we celebrate the March on Washington, the adoption of a basic income guarantee would help to fulfill the Rev. King’s dream of economic security as a universal right of all Americans.  

Allan Sheahen is the author the new book: Basic Income Guarantee: Your Right to Economic Security. He is a board member of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee (USBIG) Networks (www.basicincomneguarantee.com).