"God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and He has left in this universe "enough and to spare" for that purpose." Martin Luther King, Jr.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Catholic who described himself as a "big fan" of Pope Francis, wants to fight poverty by reinventing the federal government's social welfare programs.
For Ryan to accomplish this goal, he should not only heed the words of a transformational religious and political leader like Pope Francis, but also Martin Luther King Jr. Despite widespread praise showered upon MLK through the years, few have championed his dream of a basic income and employment for all. Those ideas served as the bedrock of MLK's anti-poverty crusade, yet have been largely forgotten today.
In his 1967 book "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?," MLK described Washington's anti-poverty efforts as "piecemeal and pygmy." Essentially, MLK felt that indirect and reactionary efforts by the government on fighting poverty were too small and unorganized to be effective. Paul Ryan shared similar sediments when in a 2014 article he wrote federal programs aimed at the poor are "fragmented and formulaic." In both cases, MLK and Ryan consistently based their viewpoints on poverty from deeply held religious convictions.
This is where the similarities between Paul Ryan and MLK end. Whereas Ryan wants less government intervention in fighting poverty, MLK sought more.
MLK's concept of a basic minimum income and national jobs program came from the realization that no amount of economic growth and prosperity could eliminate poverty or create jobs for all. Thus in 1965, MLK argued for a national jobs program when he stated, "At the present time, thousands of jobs a week are disappearing in the wake of automation and other production efficiency techniques."
With a four decades year low of 94 million people not in the labor force, MLK's statement rigs true today.
Rapid technological advancements have contributed to manufacturing and high-tech jobs being occupied by a select few, while the vast majority of new jobs created since the Great Recession have primarily been low-skill and easy to replace.
For example, Netflix, the undisputed king of streaming movies and television shows online, generates $5.5 billion in revenue and has about 2,400 employees. Compare that to its now defunct competitor, Blockbuster, which at its peak employed nearly 60,000 employees.
In the book "Freedom From Fear, The American people in Depression and War, 1929-1945," author David M. Kennedy writes about the impressive productivity of American capitalism. Kennedy highlights that by 1925, a completely assembled Model T Ford was created every 10 seconds at Henry Ford's Highland Park plant. Less than a decade before, it would've taken 14 hours to assemble the very same car.
MLK realized this technological trend will only accelerate, which meant a federal jobs program aimed at full employment was an absolute necessity.
MLK's support for a basic minimum income was seen as a serious proposal in the 1960s.
In 1962, economist Milton Friedman released a book titled "Capitalism and Freedom," in which he believed a negative income tax, or basic minimum income, could replace most of the current social welfare programs. In 1966, devout Catholic Sargent Shriver, considered the chief architect of the War on Poverty, suggested to President Lyndon Johnson he adopt Friedman's idea on the negative income tax so long as all able bodied citizens find employment.
President Nixon in 1969 and his Democratic opponent in the 1972 presidential election, George McGovern, both unsuccessfully advocated their own form of the basic minimum income.
Go back to the early days of the American republic and you'll find one of the greatest political thinkers of the time, Thomas Paine, advocate for a social insurance system for youth and seniors which formed the basis for today's Social Security program. In his 1797 pamphlet, "Agrarian Justice," Paine argued for a 10 percent tax on inherited property to combat the growing inequality of natural property. From this national fund, those 21 years old would receive a onetime payment of 15 pounds and those over 50 years old 10 pounds each year.
Paine believed such compensation was a small measure of justice for young citizens in particular, since most owned no land. In one of the more notable passages of Agrarian Justice, Paine declares, "It is wrong to say God made rich and poor; He made only male and female, and He gave them the earth for their inheritance." Furthermore, Paine reasoned the poor shouldn't have to rely solely on charity and suffer the stigma it carried.
Paul Ryan, who strongly believes private charities should take the lead on anti-poverty efforts, would likely disagree with Paine on this last point.
In 2013, when Pope Francis critiqued capitalism and blasted trickle-down economics for the exclusion and indifference it creates towards the poor, Paul Ryan responded by stating, "The guy is from Argentina, they haven't had real capitalism in Argentina. They have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don't have a true free enterprise system."
Perhaps Pope Francis could've defended himself against Ryan with a critique on our economic system from someone who actually lived and experienced 'real capitalism'.
The pope could turn to someone like MLK, who in a speech delivered less than a month before his assassination, said this about our economic system: "Well that appears to me to be a kind of socialism for the rich and rugged hard individualistic capitalism for the poor."
While workers across the nation fight for a $15 minimum wage and citizens suffer from institutional neglect in Flint, Michigan, we should remember Martin Luther King Jr. had a much more revolutionary dream for the United States of America. A dream in which incomes are lifted up and jobs aimed at promoting the common good are guaranteed for all. MLK's dream on how to fight poverty should be the nation's dream too.