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"The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty." — Martin Luther King Jr.

Scott Santens
Scott Santens
7 min read
"The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty." — Martin Luther King Jr.

It is not as widely known as it should be, but Martin Luther King Jr. wrote and spoke about the need for an unconditional basic income before he was killed. Here is a video of him speaking about UBI at Stanford in 1967.

One of the answers it seems to me, is a guaranteed annual income, a guaranteed minimum income for all people, and for all families of our country. It seems to me that the Civil Rights movement must now begin to organize for the guaranteed annual income. Begin to organize people all over our country, and mobilize forces so that we can bring to the attention of our nation this need..."

Those are powerful words just as true now as they were then. The Civil Rights movement is not over. There is still more to be done, and one of those goals yet to be accomplished, is the guaranteed annual income (today better known as basic income or unconditional basic income or universal basic income or just UBI for short) so as to provide a minimum amount of equal opportunity to all citizens.

MLK got into far more detail about his vision of basic income in his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? In it, he wisely wrote that poverty was mostly not a lack of anything but money, so the best way to eliminate poverty is to simply provide people with money, not bureaucracy-filled welfare programs. In other words, as historian Rutger Bregman has himself explained poverty is not a lack of character. It's a lack of cash.

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’m 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."

MLK knew that we've already beaten scarcity through technological abundance, and that our problem is not a lack of stuff, but a lack of money to buy that stuff. Or as sci-fi author William Gibson has alternatively put it, "The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed."

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 to idleness and bind them into 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 non-producer a consumer or else 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 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 poor poorer in relation to the larger society."

MLK also understood that many of our problems are due to a lack of basic income, and that with basic income, we'd find far fewer homeless people, far more healthier people, and far more educated people, because people don't choose to be homeless, unhealthy, and uneducated. It's most often simply a lack of money that creates these issues, and that provided money, people can be trusted to spend it on what they themselves best know they need most.

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of proceeding 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 are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows 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."

MLK also believed that a UBI should be high enough to provide dignity for all, and that it should grow as the national economy grows. I too believe this. A UBI should be indexed to GDP per capita, so that as automation increases our productivity, our UBI increases. Such a setup would fully incentivize automation. Unemployment would no longer be a fear but a goal if the more robots we employed, the higher our monthly basic income checks grew.

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 at 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 arisen, 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."

MLK knew that achieving UBI would require all those with insufficient incomes working together, regardless of color or political affiliation. Left and right must act in coalition. The fact that Milton Friedman also supported UBI in MLK's time shows this is entirely possible.

The proposal is not a “civil rights” program, in the sense that the 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 affect this change, because their combined strength will be necessary to overcome the fierce opposition we must realistically anticipate."

MLK knew that the rich already have a UBI, something Matt Bruenig wrote about in 2016.

Our nation’s adjustment to a new mode of thinking will be facilitated if we realize that for nearly 40 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 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 benefits."

MLK knew that basic income was pro-work, that it would enable people to voluntarily pursue the work most valuable to them, and thus most valuable to society. He did this by quoting Henry George from his own book Progress and Poverty, a book which I also wholeheartedly recommend.

The 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.”

MLK knew that the lack of basic income in this day and age is nothing but archaic thinking. He knew this back in 1968.

The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance condensed into the overfed mouth of the middle and upper class until the 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."

It is time for us to civilize ourselves. No civilization is truly civilized so long as it withholds access to what people need to live. Poverty is a present-day form of cannibalism. Unconditional access to basic needs must be provided, and UBI accomplishes that goal - a goal which will only grow increasingly important to achieve as automation continues to reduce the employability of humans.

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."

In the 21st century, the time truly has come for us to finally civilize ourselves by the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty, just as MLK himself advocated.


I also recommend watching this video by Orf:


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Unconditional basic income (UBI) advocate with a crowdfunded basic income; Author of Let There Be Money; Senior Advisor to Humanity Forward; BasicIncomeToday.com editor; Fund for Humanity board member