According to a report issued this year, wealth is getting further concentrated to the top ten percent wealthiest households, which now hold 69 percent of the nation’s wealth. By contrast, the bottom 50 percent of households hold just 2.4 percent of the nation’s wealth. And racial wealth disparities remain as stark as ever, with Black families earning 24 cents for every $1 earned by a white family, and Hispanic families earning 23 cents for every $1 earned by a white family.
This is part of the future Dr. Martin Luther King was hoping to avoid when, 60 years ago this year on August 28, he issued his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March for Jobs and Freedom. Although he is remembered most for the parts of his speech that called for racial equality and justice, the speech contains references to his developing thoughts on economic justice, too.
What many people do not know is that the 1963 demonstration planted a seed for King’s later fight for guaranteed income as a part of his overall vision for economic justice and freedom across the U.S.
In the late 1950s, with the Civil Rights Act stalled in Congress, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were planning a march to Washington, D.C. to advocate for freedom and equality. This plan later took shape as the March for Jobs and Freedom when Dr. King met Philip Randolph and his chief aide, Bayard Rustin.
Randolph and Rustin were labor organizers and civil rights activists who believed freedom could only be achieved if people first had economic security. Randolph had been advocating for a march on Washington since the 1940s to protest racial discrimination and segregation in jobs created following World War II.
These plans stalled when President Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Practice Committee. But when the Committee fizzled, Randolph sought out Dr. King to help him mobilize broader support for the march. Between Randolph, Rustin, and King, the March for Jobs and Freedom was born.
Although King had many influences, Randolph and Rustin were among the first of his influences who helped shape his thinking on economic security, civil rights, and liberty. At the March, King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech, and in it he stated that at that point, one hundred years following the Emancipation Proclamation:
“The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.”
Over the next five years, Dr. King’s thoughts about economic justice continued to evolve, culminating in his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community.” In the book, King argues that liberation for all people depends upon economic security.
In particular, he argued for the development of a guaranteed income program that would not replace wages, but would ensure that all households had enough to avoid dire poverty.
He wrote: “The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
When he wrote the book, King was planning the Poor People’s Campaign which was designed to mobilize people of all races for a common goal of ending poverty in the world’s richest country. By the time he began planning the Poor People’s Campaign, King was prepared to use civil disobedience if necessary to demand an end to poverty.
Unfortunately, before the Poor People’s Campaign could be realized, King was assassinated. A month later in 1968, the Campaign’s first official demonstration was launched on Mother’s Day, led by civil rights activist and Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King.
55 years after King’s death, there is still no federal guaranteed income program, but state, local, and privately funded pilot programs providing guaranteed income are being implemented around the country with great success.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, a 2021 guaranteed income pilot program was so successful that the mayor of Cambridge, Sumbul Siddiqui, opened applications this summer to what he hopes will remain a long-term guaranteed income program in the city. Approximately 2,000 families are expected to begin receiving $500 a month for a period of 18 months.
During the 2021 pilot program, the small monthly payments families received, with no strings attached, helped stabilize struggling families and helped to close the racial wealth gap. As Mayor Siddiqui says, it’s not the only solution to solving income inequality, but it is one of many effective tools.
According to Community Change, in 2023 alone 18 states created or enhanced their Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) or Child Tax Credits (CTC), shoring up their family tax credit programs so they are more inclusive and provide a greater economic foundation for families with principles based on guaranteed income policies, and 3 states introduced legislation to create new publicly-funded GI pilots.
With their grassroots partners around the country, Community Change is working on advocating for guaranteed income programs that offer generous, recurring payments, are fully refundable, and are inclusive of immigrants.
Just like the organization behind the March for Jobs and Freedom, guaranteed income programs around the country are made possible by grassroots organizing. It’s up to us to work together to work together towards Dr. King’s goal of eradicating poverty once and for all in the richest nation on earth.