In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here? Martin Luther King Jr. issued a visionary call often written out of our remembrances of his calls for change. “The solution to poverty,” King wrote, “is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
Now, over 50 years later, King’s long-overlooked call for a guaranteed income, where families receive regular cash infusions alongside their wages, is being not only heard but also put into practice. Communities around the country are demonstrating his proposal; 100 guaranteed income pilot projects have been launched in just the last five years. The people launching these demonstration projects are realizing King’s vision, which is also the vision of policy powerhouse Johnnie Tillmon who, alongside her collaborators at the National Welfare Rights Organization, long nudged King to rally for a guaranteed income.
This burst of guaranteed income pilots in the twenty-first century started in Stockton, California, and Jackson, Mississippi, with the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration championed by Mayor Michael Tubbs and the Magnolia Mother’s Trust led by Dr. Aisha Nyandoro, both supported by my organization, the Economic Security Project. Both of these pilots open-sourced their playbooks and invited other community leaders to take up the charge. Hundreds have answered.
One of these pilots is in the neighborhood where King was born and preached, the Old Fourth Ward of Atlanta, and it’s been powerful to witness its work nearly every step of the way. I spent years living in Atlanta before moving to California, where I would eventually co-found the Economic Security Project. So when I got a Facebook message from Amir Farokhi, an Atlanta City Council member eager to bring guaranteed income to Atlanta, we got to work and launched a task force to assess what a guaranteed income could mean for the city. As we dove in, it made me appreciate even more the organizing prowess of King and his generation who were able to launch and maintain the Montgomery Bus Boycott without the internet!
All 100 of these pilots are built upon a persuasive body of evidence showing that a guaranteed income is a powerful tool for people to invest in themselves and their families. Each of these pilots underscores how direct cash support makes people’s lives better. From the streets of Stockton to rural Alabama, guaranteed income improves work outcomes, food security, and housing, and makes possible all sorts of things that can’t be tracked by the data. There isn’t a graph that will accurately capture what it means when a father is able to take a Sunday off for the first time in years and, upon bringing his family to the pool, learns—to his astonishment—that his kids know how to swim. In city after city, these programs bring King’s vision for economic justice to life and show that a guaranteed income can help people meet their basic needs and enable so much more.