Dr. King on Eliminating Poverty

The Atlantic is highlighting one of the elements of Dr. Martin Luther King’s career that is far too often overlooked: his commitment to the idea that the government should not only work to end poverty, but ensure a guaranteed middle class income.

Jordan Weissman writes:

He laid out the case for the guaranteed income in his final book, 1967’s Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Washington’s previous efforts to fight poverty, he concluded, had been "piecemeal and pygmy." The government’s believed it could lift up the poor by attacking the root causes of their impoverishment one by one — by providing better housing, better education, and better support for families. But these efforts had been too small and too disorganized. Moreover, he wrote, "the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else."

It was time, he believed, for a more straightforward approach: the government needed to make sure every American had a reasonable income.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • First he was murdered. He was also speaking out against Vietnam. Then the black panthers were murdered. Then the Rockefeller drug laws ensured selective means to imprison black leaders.

    Dr. King was a fine man, first to go. Civil rights now is his words, cleansed of all Vietnam references and to the drug laws that keep porential leaders under lock and key.

    Ain’t nothing about this country that ain’t corrupt.

  • Back to civics class for everyone. Democracy means people have a voice about the things that affect them. 24 hours a day. Your bank, your boss, or your landlord are not your representatives. It isn’t that these people don’t deserve reward for effort, but our economy isn’t there to serve the “haves” at the expense of the “have-nots.” At its roots is likely runaway campaign cash, but we can’t just sit back and get run over by an unbalanced economy that eliminates the middle class.

      • Super racist. Look at these from the americanthinker.

        Consider these statistics:

        § Blacks are seven times more likely than people of other races to commit murder, and eight times more likely to commit robbery.

        § The best indicator of violent crime levels in an area is the percent of the population that is black and Hispanic.

        § Blacks are 39 times more likely to commit a violent crime against whites then vice versa, and 136 times more likely to commit a robbery.

        § The death toll from murder in Chicago over the last decade exceeds the death toll of our soldiers in Afghanistan since the beginning of that war. [Handgun purchases are not allowed in Chicago.]

        § Nearly 3/4 of black children are born out of wedlock. Generations of children are being raise without fathers.

        § Academic achievement for black students is appallingly low, despite a large amount of money being spent to provide that group with educational opportunities.

        Now consider the fact that decent black people are the people who are most harmed by this violent subculture. They are the closest to the problem and suffer the most from it. But we all suffer from this growing cancer and ignoring the problem is simply one way to commit national suicide.

        This problem is not about skin color. The real problem is bad values

  • Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”

    Jesus said, “For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:8 ESV)

    We have had poor people since Jesus spoke, as well as since the good Rev. Dr. , all the politicians of the left, and all the big government programs. Sometimes things are just dreams beyond the reach of human powers. What is not beyond your power is to help your neighbor through direct charity and love.

    “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21 ESV)

    Every attempt of bringing heaven to earth through our human efforts has always brought the opposite. Especially when big government has been involved, because the force of law, is always heartless cold handouts without the warmth of the touch of a loving human hand. In this life we never have perfect justice, and God help us if we ever did! What we must strive for is charity, and grace in our everyday interactions with our neighbors.

    • Big Religion is pretty cold and heartless too.
      Religious leaders compell people to actions that are far from loving or charitable, all by the force of faith.
      If Jesus said ‘that what you do to the least of my people, that you do to me’…
      What if the least of his people are the homosexuals, the women who have had abortions, and the other collections of human beings shunned by the church?
      If it’s too much of a sacrifice to love all our neighbors, if there are faith based exceptions for this group or that, how can there be any meaningful virtue in any of his teachings?

  • Too many Christians misinterpret “The poor you will always have . . .” to mean there is no use trying to eliminate poverty. Firstly, there are many ways to be poor; secondly, the poor are not “other,” they are an aspect of our community. A part of all of us. If one person in a community goes without, that affects us all.

    • Government “assistance” becomes corrosive to the spirit of both the giver and the receiver because this financial transaction never reaches the level of true charity, and lacks the character of sincere human love.

      In my long years of experience, uncharitable people do not first use the excuse that poverty will always be with us, but go first to asking “What about welfare? Don’t they have government freebees?” They reconcile their guilt in their own minds because they have paid their taxes. Sadly, the opportunity for charity is thwarted, and their spirits are impoverished.

      The only way that anyone can be lifted out poverty, is if they gain the spiritual maturity to fight covetousness within their own character. A government program is powerless against covetousness. Only in true humility before the sacrifice of God himself in the person of Jesus Christ can true and eternal wealth be received. This One calls you to follow.

      • I think, Rev. Gordish, you’re adding to the gospels a modern interpretation. Nowhere do Jesus or the apostles speak of the act of charity as an act designed to enrich the soul of the giver, or as a ‘feel-good’ action. It is instead a duty and a obligation. Taxes or no, the emphasis on giving to feel better about yourself ignores the crucial reality – in the gospels, ‘giving’ is not a free act, but a requirement; maintaining ones own wealth in the presence of poverty (even if that wealth is not as a result of the poverty of others) is a sure road to separation from God; i.e. The Rich Man and Lazarus. To refrain from helping, in an organized way, the poorest among us in order to keep open the option of private charity at the discretion of the wealthy is distinctly counter to the Gospels.

        • “To refrain from helping, in an organized way, the poorest among us in order to keep open the option of private charity at the discretion of the wealthy is distinctly counter to the Gospels.”

          What a nonsensical statement!

          1. “in an organized way” Do you mean by this the church? You most certainly cannot say that the Gospels proclaim modern socialism. The only community Jesus organizes is His eternal church. Jesus answered to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36

          2. “the option of private charity” All charity is private. It is a free offering of one human to another. Charity by its very definition must be discretionary and only those with a superabundance have anything to give to those who lack. Taxes are not charity, because you cannot refrain from giving. My point is that government “help” is not the best help and it shut down the possibility for true charity. We can and should aspire for better.

          3. Which “Gospels” are you you talking about? The twisted “social” gospel? Talk about reading into the gospels with a modern interpretation! The social gospel is no Gospel at all.

          Also you didn’t read the text I quoted: Jesus said, “you will have treasure in heaven.” Mark 10:21. Heavenly treasure is not a feeling, and since I am a human with a soul, I take his promise as the gospel truth, and expect to be enriched with heavenly treasure. Do you believe you have a soul?

          • 1. ” “in an organized way” Do you mean by this the church? You most certainly cannot say that the Gospels proclaim modern socialism.”

            The gospels proclaim anti-materialism; the prophets are among the first to identify how our material goods interfere with out spiritual well-being, but it is truly in the epistles that socialism is laid out. Not modern socialism, mind you – this is a community of believers holding everything in common, theoretically voluntarily (though at least two of those who held out were struck dead by the Holy Spirit). The question is, if as a believer you are obligated to give up your material possessions to help others, are you similarly required to vote for your government to do the same?

            I suppose you can make a reasonable argument that no, private giving and government-required giving are too different. But then when a Christian goes to the polls, what is the Christian choice?

            We know that sitting comfortably in luxury while others are suffering is a sin. What does that say about voting in support of a system that perpetuates this sin? If there were any evidence that charity could alleviate suffering as well as government intervention, then you’d have a point. But that’s clearly not true.

            2. True charity remains possible – and if the purpose of such charity is the spiritual rewards it brings, then the amount a person is able to give is unimportant. If the existence of government intervention convinces a person not to give charity, it seems perhaps their heart’s not really in it!

            3. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Particularly the Sermon on the Mount, the Parable of Lazarus, the story of Jesus and the Wealthy Man (Camels and Needles, etc.) and the Parable of Goats and Sheep, all of which make clear that the priority of any Christian needs to be to work to ameliorate the suffering of their fellow humans as much as possible. Government intervention has proven more effective at this task – therefore, it is the government a Christian ought to support. Also the book of Acts, which details the redistributive efforts of the apostles.

            • 1. You said, “The gospels proclaim anti-materialism” This is true if you mean by it the belief that only material things matter. So, I think we agree here.

              To answer your question:
              Christians are to vote for candidates who will provide a honest government which rewards those who do good, and punish those who do evil. See Romans 13:1-4 and 1 Peter 2:14. We should pay taxes to these rulers because they deserve wages for restraining evil behavior. Romans 13:6.

              To vote for a government who takes from the haves and disperses it to the have nots is not a just government because it rewards the lazy, and punishes the diligent. Even worse is to vote for a government that will take from the rich and give to yourself. That of course is simply theft. Exodus 20:15 “You shall not steal.” Promoting such an expectation of government also promotes covetousness. Exodus 20:17 “You shall not covet.” Jesus says in the sermon on the mount, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:19. He also teaches us not to trust our government for our daily bread, but God himself. Matthew 6:11, “Give us this day our daily bread.” see also 6:25-34.

              You say, “If there were any evidence that charity could alleviate suffering as well as government intervention, then you’d have a point. But that’s clearly not true.” This is untrue. Church charities and schools are far more efficient and effective than their government equivalents. Prove your assertion!

              2. I agree with your point.

              3. Your reading of these text is based on a superficial characterization of what they really say. Just as an example, you say, “theoretically voluntarily (though at least two of those who held out were struck dead by the Holy Spirit)” but the text clearly says that their giving was done voluntarily. “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” (Acts 5:4 ESV) Their sin deserving death was trying to look better than they were in the eyes of the saints, and thinking that God would not notice. They sought to please men more than God.

              If you are going to assert something, it is best to use the primary sources, but when you gloss over the details, you put things in God’s mouth that he never said. We call this blaspheme.

              So, government intervention through social programs is not more effective as you state and expect us to believe without evidence. You are begging the question here.

              • Look at the objective evidence, Rev. Gordish. The United States has exceptionally high levels of personal charity, and yet our poor suffer on a level that is hardly comparable to the poor of Europe, where personal charity is lower and yet the poor are better taken care of. You can find evidence of this not just in poverty statistics but in life expectancy, infant mortality, education, and even abortion and divorce rates.

                As to a government being unjust because it attempts to alleviate poverty, what kind of sense does that make? Certainly not biblical sense – if it did, personal charity would be subject to the same criticism, would it not? The language of encouraging laziness or of tax as theft has no basis in the bible – you are grafting it on from quite another tree. What kind of society does God want? Well lets look more specifically to the sort of society God surely doesn’t want, the society of Sodom:

                ” “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” Ezekial 16:49.

                When people are starving and freezing to death in the richest country in the world, that sounds quite a bit like Sodom, eh? Now believe me, I’d love for the ‘overfed, arrogant and unconcerned’ in our country to voluntarily give up their superfluous wealth to help the poor, But I don’t see it happening. And while I agree that in a Democracy it’s hard to justify wealth redistribution based on a scripture not everyone believes, it’s most certainly wrong to use the scriptures to defend the sort of society the prophets and apostles have denounced.

                • Your fallacy is that you think that the Bible speaks to a society, or a civilization. You also make a fundamental error of mixing church and state.

                  The Bible calls to individuals, and gives law and Gospel to people, not their groups. Jesus, and Paul and all the rest spoke to Church and not the state. To say they do is contrary to fact. Please give us some scripture quotes if you want to say that your view is that of the Bible.

                  When we dream of a government that distributes grace, and not justice we have a government which oversteps its God given authority, and steps in the place of God, who alone give grace through Jesus Christ. When the government is gracious with other peoples money it is unjust. When the government refuses to punish the wicked, it promotes wickedness. Such a “gracious” government always moves to grabbing more and more power, in order to control the minute behaviors and beliefs of its people. It will begin to believe that only through totalitarian control can they bring paradise. We cannot build heaven on earth, and as Jesus said, “We will always have the poor among you.” The answer to our true poverty is not a government program, but the building up of the church, the body of Christ, which alone distributes the grace of God, and hope in a life to come. Its members must be called to help the poor among us, but not by compulsion but in freedom and true charity and love.

                  The tax man can never bring this love, nor can the hangman, but we need them both to protect us from evil doers. Those honest public servants who act in these vocations serve us all, and as individuals love us.

                  Now as far as Europe goes, their economic collapse is a constant threat. The EU is struggling to stay together because the rich states cannot continue to carry the social welfare programs of the poor states. It is a system that is not sustaining itself. We seem headed the same direction.

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