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MLK Had a Dream of Guaranteed Income

MLK Had a Dream of Guaranteed Income. As Mayors of 11 U.S. Cities, We Are Bringing That Dream to Life

Michael D. Tubbs is the mayor of Stockton, Calif.
Chokwe Antar Lumumba is the mayor of Jackson, Miss.
Melvin Carter is the mayor of St. Paul, Minn.
Ras J. Baraka is the mayor of Newark, N.J.
Aja Brown is the mayor of Compton, Calif.
Eric Garcetti is the mayor of Los Angeles
Adrian Perkins is the mayor of Shreveport, La.
Libby Schaaf is the mayor of Oakland, Calif.
Stephen Benjamin is the mayor of Columbia, S.C.
Keisha Lance Bottoms is the mayor of Atlanta
Victoria R. Woodards is the mayor of Tacoma, Wash.

In 1967, against a backdrop of massive civil unrest, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? and called for the immediate abolition of poverty. In the richest nation in the world, King saw no justification for the evil of rampant poverty and chastised the government’s efforts against the ill as “piecemeal and pygmy.” Housing efforts were subject to the whims of the legislature, educational reforms were sluggish, and family assistance programs were neglected; all failed to reach the most profound needs of the poor. King’s economic dream was the most direct – a guaranteed income for all Americans. This week, more than 50 years later and against a similar backdrop of racial and economic unrest, we mayors are bringing that dream to life.

Economic insecurity isn’t new and poverty itself is violent. We need a policy solution that is as bold as it is innovative and as simple as it is ambitious. We must fight every day for a more just economy, because what happens to one of us happens indirectly to all of us and we are in this fight together. That’s why, as mayors of 11 American cities with a collective population of about 7 million, we are launching Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. This coalition will invest in additional guaranteed-income pilots and advocate for state and federal cash-based policies.

As leaders of our respective cities, we see firsthand how poverty and economic insecurity afflict our neighborhoods and families. Nearly 40% of Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency, and rising income inequality is compounded by a growing racial wealth gap. The median net worth of white households is 10 times that of Black households and about eight times that of Latinx households, and the wealthiest 0.1% in America own about the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90%.

For women, the stats paint an even bleaker image: women, particularly women of color, are the most likely to live in poverty and work in low-paying jobs, and are far more likely to lack access to sick leave and health care benefits. Black women are paid 62 cents for every dollar that a white male earns, and Latinx women make even less at 54 cents for every dollar a white male earns.

Now, it’s these same Americans — already working harder and harder, yet being left further and further behind — who bear the brunt of COVID-19. According to the COVID Racial Data Tracker, Black people make up 13% of the U.S. population but account for 23% of deaths where race is known.

Black and brown Americans are caught in a double bind, overrepresented both in the low-wage jobs most vulnerable to layoffs and in the jobs deemed most essential: Latinx folks constitute 54% of agricultural workers, while Black folks account for 27% of licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses. Those who haven’t been laid off are taking risks for the rest of us. Front-line workers keeping communities running at grocery stores, farms and warehouses are barely being paid a living wage.

We should not be surprised by this current reality – racial and gender disparities are what our society was structured to produce, and it’s working accordingly. But we do have the power to reverse course. How? By implementing a guaranteed income.

A guaranteed income is a monthly cash payment given directly to individuals. It is unconditional, with no strings attached and no work requirements. A guaranteed income is meant to supplement, rather than replace, the existing social safety net and can be a tool for racial and gender equity. Direct, unconditional cash gives people the freedom to spend money on their most immediate needs — be it food for their household, repairing a car to get to work, medicine to treat a loved one or simply rent.

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