We Are Going
from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 1967 Book
"Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?"
the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: There are
twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore
I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial
discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and
Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a
consequence of multiple evils: lack of education restricting job opportunities;
poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative;
fragile family relationships which distorted personality development.
The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be
attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions,
improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities,
and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed.
In combination these measures were intended to remove the causes of
While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal
disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis
or at a similar rate of development. Housing measures have fluctuated
at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy.
Educational reforms have been even more sluggish and entangled in
bureaucratic stalling and economy-dominated decisions. Family assistance
stagnated in neglect and then suddenly was discovered to be the central
issue on the basis of hasty and superficial studies. At no time has
a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As
a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach
down to the profoundest needs of the poor.
In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs
of the past all have another common failing -- they are indirect.
Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.
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.
Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with
ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility.
At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual's
abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the
absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and
We have 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 operation of our economy and the prevalence
of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant
or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often
dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and
incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy
develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.
We have come to the point where we must make the nonproducer a consumer
or we will find ourselves drowning in a sea of consumer goods. We
have so energetically mastered production that we now must give attention
to distribution. Though there have been increases in purchasing power,
they have lagged behind increases in production. 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 problem indicates that our emphasis must be two-fold. 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:
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 task either by the lash of a master
or by animal necessities. It is the work of men who perform it for
their own sake, and not that they may get more to eat or drink, or
wear, or display. In a state of society where want is abolished, work
of this sort could be enormously increased." 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 and in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income
is stable and certain, and when he know that he has the means to seek
self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife and children
will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale
of dollars is eliminated.
Two conditions are indispensable if we are to ensure that the guaranteed
income operates as a consistently progressive measure. First, it must
be pegged to the median income of society, not the lowest levels of
income. To guarantee an income at the floor would simply perpetuate
welfare standards and freeze into the society poverty conditions.
Second, the guaranteed income must be dynamic; it must automatically
increase as the total social income grows. Were it permitted to remain
static under growth conditions, the recipients would suffer a relative
decline. If periodic reviews disclose that the whole national income
has risen, then the guaranteed income would have to be adjusted upward
by the same percentage. Without these safeguards a creeping retrogression
would occur, nullifying the gains of security and stability.
This proposal is not a "civil rights" program, in the sense
that that term is currently used. The program would benefit all the
poor, including the two-thirds of them who are white. I hope that
both Negro and white will act in coalition to effect this change,
because their combined strength will be necessary to overcome the
fierce opposition we must realistically anticipate.
Our nation's adjustment to a new mode of thinking will be facilitated
if we realize that for nearly forty years two groups in our society
have already been enjoying a guaranteed income. Indeed, it is a symptom
of our confused social values that these two groups turn out to be
the richest and the poorest. The wealthy who own securities have always
had an assured income; and their polar opposite, the relief client,
has been guaranteed an income, however miniscule, through welfare
John Kenneth Galbraith has estimated that $20 billion a year would
effect a guaranteed income, which he describes as "not much more
than we will spend the next fiscal year to rescue freedom and democracy
and religious liberty as these are defined by 'experts' in Vietnam."
The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution
on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into
the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag
with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is
necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is
also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging
to archaic thinking.
The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially
as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization,
when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food
from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them.
The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct
and immediate abolition of poverty.
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