Dr. King taught us that direct cash payments are a smart response to poverty and mass unemployment. In this crisis, we need to heed that call.
By: John Nichols
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s posthumous message to America came in a Look magazine article published shortly after the civil rights leader’s assassination, on April 4, 1968. In it, King wrote, “We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work. It would also guarantee an income for all who are not able to work. Some people are too young, some are too old, some are physically disabled, and yet in order to live, they need income.”
King was not the first to propose an economic bill of rights—President Franklin Roosevelt had done so almost a quarter-century earlier in his 1944 State of the Union Address. Nor was he the first to speak of the role guaranteed basic income might play in addressing poverty, inequality, and mass unemployment.
But the pastor’s merging of these proposals as part of a call to “end poverty, to extirpate prejudice, to free a tormented conscience, to make a tomorrow of justice, fair play and creativity” was a vital contribution to the national debate, as was his recognition that the United States of more than 50 years ago had an “opportunity to avoid a national disaster and create a new spirit of class and racial harmony.”
With that recognition, he wrote, “We can write another luminous moral chapter in American history.”
Unfortunately, it did not happen. Political leaders of the late 1960s and early 1970s, from Richard Nixon to George McGovern, explored the prospect of using direct cash payments and guaranteed income initiatives to alleviate economic pain and address the often devastating consequences of social and technological change. But decades passed without necessary action, as wages stagnated and inequality grew. Public intellectuals such as Erik Olin Wright, activists associated with the US Basic Income Guarantee Network and other groups, and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang kept raising the issue.
But it took a pandemic and the economic crisis that extended from it to open up a serious conversation about using direct cash payments to provide the income tens of millions of Americans needed to survive.
That conversation has been uneven and disappointing. Congress has acted in fits and starts, but always insufficiently. After endorsing initial direct cash payments of $1,200 to eligible Americans in March, at the beginning of the crisis, the House and Senate did not agree to provide additional funding until the end of 2020. Then, even as everyone from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to President Trump was calling for $2,000 payments, the final “relief” measure of 2020 contained only a paltry one-time $600 commitment.
President-elect Biden has recognized that insufficiency and responded with a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan that includes a proposal for a workaround that gets the payment figure up to $2,000 —by adding an additional $1,400 to the already agreed-upon $600 figure.
Biden’s American Rescue Plan is reasonably ambitious. In addition to providing needed funding for health care and building a robust vaccination program, it promises extended unemployment benefits, rent relief, food assistance, aid to small businesses, support for schools and state and local government, and a federal minimum wage increase to $15 an hour. At the heart of the plan is an understanding on the part of the president-elect that “$600 is simply not enough when you have to choose between paying rent or putting food on the table. We need $2,000 stimulus checks.”
There is no question that tens of millions of Americans need $2,000 now.
Nor, however, should there be any question that more $2,000 checks will be needed in the months to come—as the pandemic continues, unemployment remains high, millions go hungry, and families are losing their homes.
Sanders, the incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee, calls Biden’s proposal “a very strong first installment of an emergency relief plan that will begin to provide desperately needed assistance to tens of millions of working families facing economic hardship during the pandemic.” But additional installments will be required.
That’s why Representative Ro Khanna of California, is right when he says, “Let’s not just give ordinary Americans a one-time $2,000 check. With our new majority and a worsening crisis, let’s meet the need: $2,000/month, every month, until this crisis is over.”
Khanna has since April been arguing that sporadic checks, while useful, are an insufficient response to an ongoing crisis.
To that end, Khanna and Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan have proposed the Emergency Money for the People Act, a plan the pair have cosponsored to provide a $2,000 monthly payment to every qualifying American over the age of 16 for up to 12 months. “Americans,” says Khanna, “need sustained cash infusions for the duration of this crisis in order to come out on the other side alive, healthy, and ready to get back to work.”
It’s the only way, the representative reminds us, “to truly support the American working class.”
John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and the author of the new book The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist Politics (Verso). He’s also the author of Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America, from Nation Books, and co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy.
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