How We Can Make Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream of Ending Poverty A Reality


I grew up in the shadows of a Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard in Stockton, Calif. My neighborhood was shaped by great people, but terrible policies: It had more liquor stores than grocery stores, schools that were underfunded, and the biggest government investment was in policing rather than in opportunity.

Years later, when I became mayor of my hometown in 2017, I walked into City Hall every day by crossing that same Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard. And while I did all in my power to provide opportunity and dignity to every person living in Stockton, I was met with opposition from naysayers who applaud Dr. King’s dream in theory on days like today but who act in ways counter on others, voting against building affordable housing, making college free and accessible for our students, reversing decades of redlining, and providing second chances to formerly incarcerated people.

On this Dr. Martin Luther King Day, I’m struck by this irony—of celebrating his life and legacy without real action; of platitudes delivered without real purpose; and of talking about Dr. King’s dream without waking up and doing the work of making it a reality.

The reality we grapple with today is the result of nearly 50 years of sleeping on Dr. King’s dream. His dream married both economic and racial justice yet unfettered capitalism continues to leave far too many folks behind. While poverty does not discriminate, it does disproportionately impact Black people, and we have a black and white racial wealth gap that’s nearly the same today as it was at the time of the March on Washington in 1963. The unemployment rate remains stagnant for Black Americans and even increased for Black women in Dec. 2022. Black homeownership rates continue to fall, and fewer than half of Black adults say they have the recommended three months emergency fund.

It’s past time we bring Dr. King’s economic dream to life, not by naming streets after him in the most marginalized parts of our communities, but by ending poverty and establishing a guaranteed income.

Guaranteed income is a monthly cash payment given directly to individuals. It is unconditional, with no strings attached and no work requirements. In 1967, Dr. King called for a guaranteed income as the simplest and most effective solution to poverty, noting that its myriad of benefits included “a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security.” Dr. King continues to explain, “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.”

In 2017, I announced the nation’s first guaranteed income pilot, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration. 50 years after King’s call for a guaranteed income, many posited that the idea was too radical and nothing more than a dream. A pandemic and recession later, public perception has shifted and we are closer to a guaranteed income than we have ever been. The organization I founded, Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, is now more than 100 mayors strong and has launched dozens of pilots across the country. All together, these pilots will deliver more than $210 million in guaranteed income to Americans of every creed.

Mayors for a Guaranteed Income just released data from 20 mayor-led pilots, showing that guaranteed income provides the freedom and flexibility Americans need to afford their basic needs, climb up the economic ladder, and pursue their dreams. Recipients spend over 80% of the extra cash on paying for the cost of everyday items—food, household goods, medical supplies, transportation, and housing. Less than 1% of spending went to tobacco or alcohol.

In Dr. King’s hometown of Atlanta, Ga., for instance, Deontrez relies on guaranteed income to pay for his daughter’s diapers and now earns more money because he could afford to take his Commercial Driver’s License test. Monica, a previously unhoused single mom in Tacoma, Wash. is using her guaranteed income to provide her daughter with safe housing and keep up with car payments.

As inflation continues to hit low-income Americans hardest, guaranteed income is an effective tool to offset rising costs for those who can least afford it. Many recipients have incomes at or near the poverty line, but don’t qualify for traditional social safety net programs. So they fall through the cracks. The average income for all participants in our pilots is barely 14 thousand, just above the federal poverty line for individuals.

In 2021, we even saw the federal government offer a guaranteed income to nearly every parent in America through the expanded Child Tax Credit. The program led to a historic drop in child poverty, in record time. Congress, however, failed to codify this expansion, and millions of children who had a glimpse of financial security were thrust back into the nightmarish reality—a parent who is working two to three jobs but still not affording to keep the lights on or put food on the table.

We know the answer to Langston Hughes’s question, “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?” We saw it in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021; we see it in the stripping of a woman’s right to bodily autonomy; we see it voter disenfranchisement and in the pervasive poverty and wealth inequality. On this day, we have the opportunity to wake up and make Dr. King’s dream of a community for all of us a reality. We have the ability and, moreover, the responsibility to create policies rooted in love and an understanding of the dignity of every single person. As Dr. King said, “God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.”

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