MLK and “the Guaranteed Income”

“President-elect Joe Biden will seek to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour as part of his relief bill,” reported Alina Selyukh for NPR.

Across social media, people began doing calculations of what $15/hour translates into for annual salaries, and here are a couple responses from white Christian conservatives:

McChristian, personifying the relationship between a McNugget and real chicken, seems to be aware that teachers are underpaid, but lacks any Christian compassion for other workers also being underpaid (such as minimum-wage workers often constituting the working poor and living without healthcare or retirement—or job security).

Rachel, hollow mouthpiece for the equally vapid TPUSA, doesn’t just lack compassion; she also lacks any grasp of basic facts, embodying not only the hypocrisy of the Christian conservative movement but also the complete misunderstanding of how the free market works.

Note that “[r]aising wages for fast-food workers to $15 an hour would lead to a noticeable but not substantial increase in food prices, according to a new study by Purdue University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management,” as reported by Sally French at Market Watch.

Social media, as well, was quick to point out that in areas such as DC and the San Francisco Bay, where the minimum wage is already $15 and above, Taco Bell burritos remain below $4 at the most expensive.

In the U.S., we are well beyond the point of needing to acknowledge that there is nothing Christian or honest about the conservative movement in the U.S.

And few times a year are more likely to expose that than Martin Luther King Jr. Day—when those on the Right scramble to cherry-pick one or two quotes from MLK to wave in front of their hypocrisy and lies.

The debate about the $15/hour minimum wage (as well as college debt relief and universal healthcare) is an ideal opportunity to examine the MLK that almost everyone in mainstream America chooses to ignore.

brown concrete statue during daytime
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

A couple favorite mis-uses and distortions of appropriating MLK is, first, characterizing King as a “passive radical” in order to violence-shame groups or paint a distorted “both sides” false equivalency between right-wing white nationalism and social justice advocates focusing on race and racism, and second, plastering the “content of their character” quotes everywhere to perpetuate the colorblind argument that, in fact, is itself racist.

Rare is the reference to King who strongly rejected the Vietnam War, but almost entirely absent from the public consciousness in the U.S. is King’s 1967 work, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

Here, King offers his criticism of the standard approach to eradicating poverty (approaches that persist in 2021):

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 initiatives;

• fragile 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 measure were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

Wealth and Want

King was confronting that U.S. political will could only admit indirect ways to address poverty—despite, as King pointed out, that more whites than Black people suffered under the weight of economic inequity.

“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,” King noted, adding: “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.”

Not only did King call for a guaranteed income, he asserted the essential need to be direct:

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.

Wealth and Want

Unlike McChristian and Rachel above, MLK as a progressive, as a Leftist (often slurred as a “communist”), understood the foundational need in a capitalist society that all people have capital:

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.

Wealth and Want

But King was profoundly aware of the problems with “minimum” wages, arguing about the guaranteed income:

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.

Wealth and Want

King makes a purely Christian argument about economic policy in a capitalist democracy that should and could center human dignity and equity over greed:

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.

Wealth and Want

The Right is wrong about what it means to be Christian.

The Right is wrong about what makes democracy and capitalism work for people and not against human dignity.

And the Right over the next few days will once again be offensively wrong about MLK.