How COVID-19 Might Be The Key To Making MLK’s Dream Of Universal Basic Income A Reality
King believed it was the responsibility and burden of the government to make sure every American had a livable income.
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Finally, weeks after our nation was introduced to the deadly epidemic of the coronavirus, the Senate passed the House’s coronavirus aid package, sending it to the desk of the ever-inept Donald Trump, who signed it into law. Under a dark night’s sky on Saturday, the House voted to pass the bill, which is estimated to cost more than $100 billion dollars. This is the second economic aid package that Congress has passed amid the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the everyday lives of Americans.
What’s most interesting in the saga of economic aid legislation is the impending third coronavirus stimulus package topping $1 trillion dollars, which will include aid for small business owners and families by providing more than $250 billion of direct cash payments to Americans.
Last Monday, Sen. Mitt Romney (UT), a Republican who has proven his prudence amidst thoughtless colleagues, proposed giving every adult $1,000 as a way to ensure economic stability for working-class Americans. Across the aisle, a group of Senate Democrats, including former Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Cory Booker (NJ), proposed giving American adults as much as $4,500. Needless to say, not every lawmaker is on board with the plan, including one of America’s most embittered Republicans, Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC).
Regardless of whether or not Americans see any proposed amount during this epidemic, the very mention of sending Americans a sum of money to ensure their sustainability during this crisis underscores just how considerable this moment. Let’s be clear, will a one-time $1,000 resolve most economic woes? No. But economists and politicians agree that it’s a step toward progress.
But this isn’t a new step toward progress. We’ve been here twice before in American memory — during the Great Recession, and during the sociopolitical peril of 2001. In both instances, the federal government gave almost every adult a $300 check.
And, here we are again, preparing to provide Americans with economic aid, which compels us to wrestle with a question that resonates against the backdrop of a national economic collapse: Was King’s dream of guaranteed income right?
It feels like forever ago when we were listening to Democratic candidate Andrew Yang, who captivated the public imagination, particularly young leftists, with what many assumed was a novel concept known as the “Freedom Dividend” — a monthly payment of $1,000 that would go out to all Americans. But, like the idea to provide economic aid directly to Americans isn’t new, a non-crisis payment of a fixed amount to every adult American isn’t new. And what the clarion proposals of Romney, Booker and others underscore in the face of our national adversity is that maybe King was right.
In the late 1960s, as Martin Luther King, Jr. was advocating for justice, he had more than a voting rights and human rights dream. He had an economic dream for America — a dream to abolish poverty by giving every American a guaranteed income. 50 years before it swept the national conversation on debate stages and in town halls, it was a civil rights pursuit of America’s democratic prophet.
Imagine what legislation would look like during a national health crisis like the coronavirus, particularly for Black folks and poor folks, if during 14-day self-quarantine periods, city curfews and social distancing, every working American adult was guaranteed a universal basic income. For hourly wage-workers anxious about weekly wages, for single parents negotiating going to work or caring for school-aged children during district closures, and for caretakers living out a sense of duty and commitment for relatives, maybe King could foresee what would keep Americans from going under.
Without the capitalistic privilege of a salary, and the preeminent seat of power that prevents you from being caught in the crossfire of workforce reduction, America’s most vulnerable and neglected communities are often one global crisis away from scarcity.
King understood this perilous truth, which is why he for universal basic income in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? In it, he demonstrates that our federal government has operated, since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, on the premise that it could lift up the poor through social safety nets like housing and education, both of which matter in the poverty fight. But these efforts of investing in more expansive affordable housing options and deepening our investment in national education reform are too indirect because “each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else." In effect, King understood the intersection between a livable income and abolishing poverty.
As such, he believed that it was the responsibility and burden of the government to make sure every American had that livable income. And it seems like in the face of national crises, both Democrats and Republicans agree with him.
Claudia Sahm, an American economist who used to work for the Federal Reserve said, “We will need multiple rounds of money for everyone. This recession is going to be more severe than the Great Recession.” Monthly payments, freedom dividends, or as James Felton Keith — a young, Black U.S. congressional candidate from New York City — calls them, data dividends, all meet the primary criteria in Sahm’s proposition, “multiple rounds of money.”
King's thinking was grounded in the belief that regardless of the strength and growth of the American market, it would not inherently create jobs for all, thus by not creating enough jobs for all Americans, it would not abolish poverty. As he put it, “We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other … new forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.”
And before conservatives start spouting that King dreamed of a government that paid people not to work — not so. Rather, he believed that it was the government's responsibility to create “new forms of work” for the left behind and the forgotten.
We’ll see what becomes of the third coronavirus bill and how parties on both sides politicize it before it’s passed, but it’s highly possible that it took a global health pandemic for us to realize a universal basic income “that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."
Dr. Robert S. Harvey is the superintendent and senior managing director of East Harlem Scholars Academies, a network of public charter schools in New York City. He is also a visiting professor in the areas of race, religion, education and leadership. His writing can be seen in TheGrio, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chalkbeat, and various academic journals.