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Martin Luther King Jr.'s Vision For Economic Justice

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Universal basic income is essentially money that goes directly into people's pockets, no strings attached. It was the cornerstone of Andrew Yang's presidential candidacy. He's campaigning on that idea again in the New York mayoral race. And a handful of cities across the country have instituted similar programs. But guaranteed cash payments - this is not a new idea. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an early proponent of universal basic income.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: It seems to me that the civil rights movement must now begin to organize for the guaranteed annual income, began to organize people all over our country and mobilize forces so that we can bring to the attention of our nation this need and this something which I believe will go a long, long way toward dealing with the Negro's economic problem and the economic problem with many other poor people confronting our nation.

KELLY: Well, on the holiday honoring Dr. King, we wanted to take on this part of his legacy. And so I am joined now by Michael Tubbs. He instituted a universal basic income program in Stockton, Calif., when he was mayor of that city. He now heads a foundation advocating the idea.

Michael Tubbs, hey there.

MICHAEL TUBBS: Hey. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: It's so striking - that quote we just heard - because I think a lot of people, of course, are very aware of Dr. King's vision for racial justice - perhaps less aware that he had a sweeping vision for economic justice, too.

TUBBS: Yeah, absolutely. I think anyone who studies Dr. King realizes that he saw that racial justice and economic justice were intertwined. And that's why he spoke so often about the triple evils of our society, which is unfettered capitalism, excessive militarism and racism. And the work that he was doing was really about eradicating our society of those three things so that we live in a community that elevates the basic human dignity of all people.

KELLY: I mentioned you implemented one of the country's first guaranteed income programs two years ago. Why? What inspired you?

TUBBS: I was inspired by studying Dr. King and realizing that for all the speeches and days of service, no one had told me about a guaranteed income, this radical idea from - and Stockton to be partnering with the Economic Security Project. And what we saw was that it did not take away people's work ethic. It did not change us into a different country, but it actually allowed folks to have a floor to persist during times especially like these ones.

KELLY: If it's such a great idea - and obviously, I can hear that you believe it is - why has it been so slow to catch on? We heard Dr. King there talking about this. That was back in 1967. Your program was one of the first, and it began in 2019, two years ago.

TUBBS: Well, I think any change is scary. And I think far too many people in our country buy into this notion of meritocracy. I think part of it was - also Dr. King talked about is racism - that every time in our country when we try to do something that helps everyone, including Black people and people of color, when we talk about how the most productive times in our country and the way the middle class was built, it was built by giving things to people, by giving land to people, by giving education to people. And I think guaranteed income's in that same vein.

KELLY: Last question, which is, do you think the moment may finally be here, that the timing may be finally right for this idea to take hold? I'm thinking the late '60s when Dr. King was advocating for this was, of course, a moment of huge upheaval and division and conversation about race in this country. And here we are, in that way, in a very similar moment.

TUBBS: It has to be now. We are literally at ground zero with sort of the racial reckoning we're having but also with the economic impacts of COVID-19. When I think if we can get a guaranteed income, an income floor, at this time, we also have to have a conversation about the moral awakening our country needs because, again, as Dr. King said, poverty robs us of the richness of a society where everyone's given the opportunity to realize their full potential.

KELLY: That is Michael Tubbs, former mayor of Stockton, Calif., and founder of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income.

Thank you for speaking with us.

TUBBS: Thank you so much for having me. Happy Dr. King Day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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