The Commercial Appeal
WASHINGTON — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had another dream: the guaranteed income.
Those careful about his legacy say the $120 million monument to him that's finally nearing construction on the National Mall is all well and good. But as the nation commemorates King's 81st birthday today, they say he should best be remembered for his career-long focus on the poor.
A year before his 1968 death in Memphis, in his "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community," King wrote: "I am now convinced that the simplest solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income."
The idea was to guarantee that no one lived in poverty by having the government provide a financial floor, pegged to median -- not low -- incomes, beneath which no one could fall. King talked about the psychological benefits of a widespread sense of "economic security."
Economists John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman endorsed the idea of guaranteed incomes, as did Lyndon Johnson's Labor Secretary and later New York Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan. Advocating the proposal was the official debate resolution for public high schools in 1973. It was a mainstream idea that has since faded from view.
But a movement to spur a guaranteed income plan is reawakening in academic and anti-poverty circles as the nation looks at 15.3 million people seeking work and the prospect of large-scale and long-term unemployment.
The Basic Income Guarantee movement (USBIG.net) is based on the belief that increased mechanization and labor efficiencies, coupled with the export of industrial and manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries, means there just isn't enough work available. Once robots can understand speech, even more jobs in the service industries will disappear, they say.
And yet people will still need to live even without work. Advocates say a redistribution of some anti-poverty program funding for direct subsidization of adequate incomes would solve the poverty problem while stimulating consumption.
University of Tennessee-Knoxville sociology professor Harry F. Dahms, a member of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network, said when he talks about the idea in the South "audiences seem rather baffled, first, that such an idea even exists." Their second response is surprise "that some people would entertain it seriously."
In a class on social justice and public policy, Dahms, originally from Germany, discusses guaranteed incomes as a way for the work force to take advantage of growing efficiencies by having more people work fewer hours.
In Memphis, efforts to enact a living wage for Shelby County and city employees and contractors were a step in the direction of raising the income bar. But Rebekah Jordan Gienapp, director of the Workers Interfaith Network, said King called for raising the minimum wage to a level that could raise working people out of poverty. She noted that, adjusted for inflation, it's lower now than in 1968.
Tennessee and Mississippi don't have state minimum wage laws and the minimum in Arkansas is lower than the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
"What does that tell us about how we've really, in a lot of ways, moved backwards since the civil rights movement in some of these economic ways?" she asks.
"Particularly on Dr. King's birthday, he tends to be held up as just someone who advocated diversity or integration, but his message was much broader and more radical than that ..."
Supporters of a guaranteed income acknowledge the solution sounds radical but point to the subsidy every citizen of Alaska receives each year from the state's oil revenue. The share-the-wealth program in one of the most Republican-leaning states is so popular that efforts to repeal it have failed.
Congress actually considered a slimmed-down variant of a guaranteed income plan when U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., proposed the Tax Cuts for the Rest of Us Act in 2006 in response to Bush tax cuts for upper-income taxpayers. It would have made the standard income tax deduction into a refundable tax credit.
Fundraising is still pressing on for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to be located between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials in Washington. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation (mlkmemorial.org) has raised $108 million of the $120 million goal. But 38 months after a ceremonial groundbreaking, preliminary soil erosion work near the Tidal Basin finally got under way late last month. A perimeter fence should go up in the weeks ahead, and the project is expected to take 20 months, said executive architect Ed Jackson Jr.