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55 years after Martin Luther King Jr. called for guaranteed income to fight poverty, some cities are finally taking his lead

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By Elisabeth Buchwald

Initiatives to provide a guaranteed income have seen unprecedented momentum in recent years, but the idea is hardly new. In fact, one advocate for the idea was Martin Luther King Jr.

“Those at the lowest economic level, the poor white and Negro, the aged and chronically ill, are traditionally unorganized and therefore have little ability to force the necessary growth in their income. They stagnate or become even poorer in relation to the larger society,” the civil-rights leader wrote in his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”

“The problem indicates that our emphasis must be two-fold. We must create full employment or we must create income,” King added in the 1967 book. “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.”

But it’s only recently that King’s vision has taken off. 

In 2019, Stockton, Calif., became the first major U.S. city to launch a guaranteed basic income experiment, in which 125 people who made less than $46,000 a year were given $500 a month with no strings attached until January of 2021. 

The experiment received initial funding from the Economic Security Project, a progressive group launched after the 2016 election and co-founded by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. 

A study by independent researchers of the Stockton experiment revealed that full-time employment went up, while recipients’ physical, financial and mental well-being improved.

Universal basic income — popularized by Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential bid — is meant to provide people with a steady, no-strings-attached stream of income, similar to the stimulus checks Americans have received during the pandemic. That’s different from guaranteed basic income, which is meant to ensure that people with lower incomes can afford basic necessities.

Pre-pandemic, few cities planned basic-income experiments

Over the past couple of decades, “there’s been a rise in the idea that if you weren’t able to not be living in poverty, that it was because of your own failings,” said Autumn McDonald, a senior fellow and head of New America CA, a branch of New America, a national think-tank that studies economic inequality. This stigma is often infused with racist stereotypes, she added.

But “over time, we have come to a place where there has been some shift in this idea of deservedness,” McDonald said. “There’s been some shift in this idea that systems actually might be broken.”

The pandemic largely changed that narrative because millions of Americans across demographic groups were struggling financially together through no fault of their own, McDonald said. She believes stimulus checks, among other pandemic relief measures, helped build more momentum for universal guaranteed income.

Now more than 60 mayors from U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, have joined Mayors for a Guaranteed Income (MGI), a coalition formed in 2020 and headed by former Stockton mayor Michael Tubbs that advocates for direct cash payments. The group has launched 15 pilot experiments so far, and says there are more forthcoming.

Some 54% of Americans in an August 2020 Pew Research Center survey said they opposed a $1,000-a-month universal basic income for all adult citizens, while 45% were in favor. Meanwhile, a June 2021 survey of likely voters by the progressive think tank Data for Progress and Mayors for a Guaranteed Income found that 55% of respondents — including 75% of Democrats, 53% of independent or third-party voters, and 31% of Republicans — favored implementing a guaranteed monthly income of $500 to $1,000.

King’s vision was what led Natalie Foster, co-chair of the Economic Security Project, to join forces with Tubbs to form the organization, she said.

“I often imagine what would it have meant … if we had a guaranteed income the way Dr. King envisioned,” said Foster, who spoke to MarketWatch ahead of the federal holiday honoring King’s birthday. “That’s not the world we live in, but it is the world I think we could live in if we make different policy choices.”

As of December, the nonprofit had distributed more than $100 million in basic income payments to recipients chosen to participate in experiments.

Many of the experiments Mayors for a Guaranteed Income oversees select recipients randomly, often within lower income brackets. But some cities’ guaranteed income programs are even more targeted.

For instance, one of the country’s largest universal guaranteed income programs, In Her Hands, is set to launch this year in King’s home state of Georgia. For 24 months, 650 predominantly Black women will receive $850 a month in an effort to close racial and gender wealth gaps.

A separate program, Just Income GNV, that is funded partially by Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, is directing $1,000 this month and $600 for the next 11 months to 115 formerly incarcerated people who live in Alachua County, Fla.

To be sure, the notion of a universal guaranteed or basic income has its detractors  — especially on the question of funding.

“Where would the money to finance such a large expenditure come from? That it would come mainly or entirely from new taxes isn’t plausible,” Robert Greenstein, the founder and president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research policy institute,  wrote in a 2019 commentary . “We’ll already need substantial new revenues in the coming decades to help keep Social Security and Medicare solvent and avoid large benefit cuts in them.”

How King may have viewed progress on economic equality

Foster said she believes the late activist and minister would have been “very saddened by the lack of progress that’s been made on widespread economic dignity in America, and the widening of the racial wealth gap.”

“We are now understanding that the last 50 years of capitalism did not work for most people,” she said.

Economic inequality in the U.S. has grown in recent decades . Meanwhile, the median wealth of white families was $188,200 at the end of 2019, while the median wealth of Black families was $24,100, according to the Federal Reserve. Black Americans had the highest poverty rate of 19.5% in 2020 across racial and ethnic groups, according to the Census Bureau.

McDonald agreed that King would not be satisfied with the country’s progress on closing the racial wealth gap and eradicating poverty.

“That’s what made him such an amazing leader,” she said. “He would not be satisfied. He would not have been like, ‘Mission accomplished!’”


‘Every recession, there’s a massive bailout given to corporations and CEOs’: Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs says basic income payments can help bail out Americans

The push for universal basic income is gaining momentum amid the pandemic

Opinion: Universal basic income is the wrong answer for workers hurt by a changing job market

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