Martin Luther King Day 2013: How MLK Would Tackle Income Inequality Today


This week in Washington, D.C., there will be a bipartisan discussion on poverty in America. This discussion is the latest effort of broadcaster Tavis Smiley's quest to bring attention to those living in poverty. Panelists will include former Speaker of the House and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, Princeton Professor Cornel West and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. The focus will be on Smiley's call to end poverty in 25 years and there can be no discussion on poverty without also mentioning income inequality. I believe it is no coincidence this discussion is happening the same week as the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which leads to some important questions. What were Dr. King's thoughts on income inequality, and how would he tackle them in today's environment.

We don't have to do much digging to figure out where Dr. King stood or how he would advocate for addressing this problem. In a speech he gave in 1967, titled Where Do We Go From Here, he addresses both of these questions. Let's look at some key quotes from the speech to determine his position.

The problem indicates that our emphasis must be twofold: We must create full employment, or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other….and we are likely to find that the problem of housing, education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.

Unlike President Obama, Dr. King did not think taxing the rich was a solution to the problem. In fact he believed that the government either needed to guarantee employment, or guarantee everyone had some level of income. Dr. King recognized that poverty was impacting the ability of everyone to be consumers and that poverty was also affecting housing and education. He believed that the way to end poverty was to guarantee employment or an income stream for everyone. The end result would be the end of poverty and the problems that come with it like education and housing. He also had an answer for how this would be accomplished.

Now, our country can do this. John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth.

Dr. King felt strongly about the government's ability to invest in this guaranteed employment. The amount of money being spent in the Vietnam War and space travel was more than enough to get the job done. With the billions of dollars being spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dr. King would still feel that the government had more than enough resources to make this happen.

What I'm saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

It is no surprise that this kind of discussion would bring about calls of communism. Dr. King was fully aware of that and did not shy away from it in the speech. He made it clear that there were flaws with both capitalism and communism and that what he advocated for was a combination of what worked from both systems. He believed the roadblocks to this solution were problems with our society such as racism, economic exploitation and war. If we could address these societal problems we could address income inequality and thus poverty. Since this speech was given in 1967, income inequality has only grown as has the amount of money spent on war. The details he laid out in this speech are the same he would be advocating for today.