On my commute to City Hall in Atlanta, I pass $1 million duplexes next to the largest block of Section 8 housing in the Southeast United States. This is Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward — where I live and serve as its representative on the city council.
This community is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born and raised, and where he pastored. It stands at the intersection of race and class, where cafes with $6 coffee meet plain corner stores, where history meets new development. A tension permeates between residents’ aspirations, values and reality. Here, we grapple with what it means to live in the shadow of Dr. King, who personified justice, amid entrenched inequality that long predates our current economic crisis. My hope is that the Old Fourth Ward will soon be the latest testing ground for an idea embraced by Dr. King — a guaranteed income.
While providing a minimum income benefits all Americans, it is firmly rooted in racial justice. Because payments are direct, policymakers can focus on vulnerable groups as the first beneficiaries.
For example, you can target race in areas where inequity permeates — such as the area I represent. For decades, a Black middle class flourished here. But since 2000, the percentage of Black residents has fallen to 43% from 76%. In the same period, median household income rose from $19,600 to $53,500 and the percentage of residents living below the federal poverty line declined to 21% from 36%..
While these trends look encouraging on paper, they are actually mostly due to demographic shifts rather than newfound economic mobility for longstanding residents. This is the classic formula of gentrification in which Black residents — facing a massive racial wealth and income gap — are pushed out by a higher cost of living. This could be any American city.
The fruits of the labor of many are concentrated in the hands of the few.
The U.S. is a place of unparalleled innovation. Wealth follows. Distribution does not. The fruits of the labor of many are concentrated in the hands of the few. The result is economic insecurity that touches most of America. Farmers struggle to sustain their business; college graduates earn low wages; firefighters pick up second jobs, parents who labored to secure stable housing for their families line up at food banks. Far too many of us are just one bad week away from homelessness.
While economic insecurity transcends race, it is felt most severely by Black and Latinx communities. Economic insecurity hits hardest at those who have been shut out from wealth building by many decades of discrimination and racism.
Dr. King’s dream of a guaranteed income
In the richest country in the world, one that purports to prize the value and worth of everyone, this is not how people should be living. Where, then, do we go from here?
We must begin by rejecting the view that a person, free from government interference, can achieve prosperity solely through hard work. Some call this rugged individualism. Others have sold it as a widely accepted repackaging of the American Dream. This is a half-truth.
Does hard work help achieve economic security? Of course. But to assume that success and failure are the exclusive byproduct of effort is a fallacy. The notion that one’s race, ZIP code, gender, and a long list of systemic factors doesn’t play a part in their relative prosperity only makes sense to those with their heads in the sand. We need a course correction, with inclusion as an essential component. Enter the role of government.
Guaranteed income offers benefits where other policies have left gaps.
More specifically, we start with an idea advanced by my neighborhood’s most famous resident: Dr. King. In his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”, King made a case for a “guaranteed minimum income.” He decried previous government efforts at fighting poverty as “piecemeal and pygmy.” In his estimation, “the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.”
The same holds true today. Piecemeal and pygmy solutions don’t suffice. Guaranteed income offers benefits where other policies have left gaps. At its most fundamental, guaranteed income provides individuals regular cash payments as a means to provide steady footing and improve their well-being. This isn’t so different from the COVID-19 stimulus payments that many Americans have received, part of an effort estimated to save 12 million Americans from descending into poverty. Yet the new plan released Monday by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell includes only a single additional payment on top of huge cuts to pandemic unemployment benefits — a wholly anemic response considering the scale of this crisis.
As the effects of the coronavirus pandemic continue to wear on Americans, particularly Black communities that have been hit harder by both the virus and its economic fallout, it is essential Congress includes recurring cash payments in its next stimulus package.
Government is a solution
The results we’re seeing so far from cities taking the lead on guaranteed income have been encouraging. People receiving cash payments tend to do what you hope they would. For example: start a business; seek preventive medical care; pay down debt; take care of an aging parent, pay for housing and food. They do the things that help themselves as well as those around them. They do the things we all would.
This cash isn’t a handout. It is an investment in neighborhoods and individuals, in equity and equality. It’s an investment in peace of mind — a roof over one’s head, food on a plate, clothes for the kids. People who get this cash still work. They still compete and innovate. They just do so knowing that they are not at risk of being pushed over the financial brink if their car blows a tire.
In the coming months, we’re going to design and push to enact our own guaranteed income program in Atlanta, in the Old Fourth Ward — one with income inequality and racial injustice as its focus. And one that measures outcomes over time such that we can all learn what may work best for the entire country. It is my hope that my neighborhood, with all its history and diversity, can be at the vanguard of equity, dignity and justice once more.
It’s time for Americans to have a better shot at a dignified and just life. It’s time Americans had a guaranteed income. In Atlanta, we are going to help lead the charge. I ask my peers in elected government and civic leaders across the U.S.: Will you join me as we attempt something big and bold?
Amir Farokhi is an Atlanta city councilman. Follow him on Twitter at @AmirForATL