Putting his pride aside, Tony Spencer didn’t mince words saying what he’d do if he got $500 a month — no strings attached.
Homeless for the past 11 years, the lifelong resident of Memphis, one of the poorest cities in the country, said he’d try getting a place to stay. That would help the ex-cemetery groundskeeper find a steady job, instead of panhandling or working odd gigs to scrape up $6 to sleep overnight in a church mission. He’d also buy some new clothes and get his hair cut more often.
“Man, I’m just trying to make it. We all trying to survive,” the 57-year-old Spencer said after taking a shower and eating a hot breakfast at the Manna House, a drop-in center near downtown on a recent chilly Monday morning.
“Why you asking me?” he concluded. “You got some money?”
Maybe Memphis, with a poverty rate of 26.9 percent, nearly twice the national average, could someday have its impoverished receive $500 monthly as part of a broader examination of the economic and social impact of having a guaranteed basic income. Before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in Memphis 50 years ago, he was working on the Poor People’s Campaign, a plan to unite the poor of all races in a march on the nation’s capital to demand economic justice.
And in his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?,” King unequivocally supported guaranteed income for all Americans. “The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income,” King wrote in 1967.
Memphis native and community leader Brad Watkins believes that a guaranteed basic income — especially using private funding — could work in his hometown. He cited a recent Northeastern University-Gallup survey that showed support among Americans for a guaranteed minimum income was at 48 percent, though the survey questions were regarding workers who are displaced by technology.
Perhaps that support could be broadened to the impoverished. “This definitely would be embraced by the community — just to be frank,” said Watkins, executive director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center.
A guaranteed or universal basic income is described by the International Monetary Fund as “a cash transfer or equal amount to all individuals in a country.” Such a concept has actually been around for centuries. English-born American political activist and philosopher Thomas Paine suggested payments “to every person, rich or poor” in his 1797 piece, “Agrarian Justice.”
Former U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), who spoke during the MLK 50 celebration in Memphis this month, supports a basic income. So does Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and fellow billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson.
Both believe in the concept as a way to offset jobs lost due to automation and artificial intelligence (AI).
In Finland, where 2,000 unemployed people are receiving 560 euros (about $665 U.S.) a month tax-free as part of a trial since 2017, there have been mixed views. The Finnish government is testing whether offering basic income is a more flexible option than existing welfare programs. The trial will conclude at the end of this year.
Other countries, including Canada, Kenya, and the Netherlands, are also experimenting with basic income plans.
If such a program came to Memphis, it would likely have to be overseen by a nonprofit that already helps individuals and families in crisis, said Peter Gathje, Manna House’s co-founder and director.
The program would be a very appropriate way to honor Dr. King’s legacy, said Gathje, also an academic dean at Memphis Theological Seminary.
“We have to keep helping our fellow man improve their quality of life. Just like Dr. King would have wanted,” Gathje said.
Soon, King’s basic income beliefs will be tested as about 100 low-income people living in Stockton, California, find out what it’s like to receive free money. The Central Valley city with a population of 300,000, located about 80 miles east of San Francisco, grabbed national headlines last fall after announcing it would be the first U.S. city to experiment with a real-world research study called universal basic income.
Why? In 2012, Stockton was the first American city to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Now, three years removed from the downfall, the city is attempting to rebound and has nothing to lose, said Mayor Michael Tubbs.
Participating in the basic income initiative is a “no-brainer,” said Tubbs as roughly 1 in 4 Stockton residents live below the poverty line. The city’s median household income is $46,795, well below the last reported national average of $59,039 in 2016. Despite healthcare and retail being Stockton’s two biggest industries, it’s also battling rising housing costs, job losses and automation due to its proximity to Silicon Valley, the technology capital of the world, Tubbs added.
As a result, the city has formed the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED, a partnership with the Economic Security Project (ESP), a basic income advocacy group led by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and others. And for actual seed money, ESP has given the city a $1 million grant to fund the pilot, which is scheduled to begin in August.
Tubbs, 27, said he first learned about basic income by reading the philosophies of King, the Black Panthers, and even former President Richard Nixon while attending Stanford University. He thinks of basic income as part of a social contract.
“In our current economic structure, I see people who often work the hardest are paid the least,” Tubbs said. “And seeing our extreme need, I found that it would be at least worth testing this idea and seeing what happens.
“This is a necessity. I think the baseline for being human is everybody deserves to live with dignity. Right?”
Discussions between Stockton and the Economic Security Project about doing a basic income pilot began about a year ago, said Dorian Warren, ESP’s co-chair and an executive for the Center for Community Change in Washington. Other impoverished cities, including Gary, IN; Jackson, MS; and New Haven, CT, were all considered for the pilot, but Stockton was chosen because of Tubbs’ personal background and willingness to share his story, Warren said.
“In some ways, he’s more articulate than any of us on this issue because he has own first-hand experiences growing up poor,” said Warren about Tubbs.
Tubbs doesn’t think the basic income initiative is a handout. He compares the program to the annual payments Alaska residents receive as part of that state’s longtime oil wealth investment fund. In 2017, about 640,000 qualified Alaskans each received $1,100, totaling $672 million in free money. While some Alaskans may see it as play money, those living in rural, poorer areas are likely to use the funds to pay bills, buy work-related equipment and put food on the table.
Stockton residents could similarly use the money to pay for utilities, groceries and for single parents seeking jobs, to pay for childcare. “That’s why there are no strings attached,” Tubbs said.
While the mayor hopes to provide 100 Stockton residents $500 a month for 18 months, he knows thousands of people will apply for the funds. There likely will be a lottery to ensure a fair selection process, he said.
Warren hopes ESP will be able to raise an additional $3 million before Stockton’s basic income initiative launches. While he has no doubt any funding will help spur economic growth, he’s curious to find out exactly how much. His organization will track how residents use the money.
“We will be equipping and empowering the recipients to tell their stories in real-time,” Warren said about the research. “This is a concept we’re taking very seriously.”
Besides the financial assistance, Tubbs said a major goal is to create more public awareness and sentiment, so basic income programs can someday expand to other major cities including Detroit, Newark, NJ, and Memphis.
“Any city that has a high concentration of poor, working poor and a low-middle class living there could benefit from this,” he said. “I certainly know Memphis, like Stockton, isn’t immune from this.”
Before Dr. King began his Poor People’s Campaign, President Lyndon Johnson, desperate to reduce an increasing national poverty rate that would soar to as high as 20 percent, declared an unconditional “war on poverty.”
“Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it,” Johnson said in his State of the Union speech in 1964.
Congress eventually passed Johnson’s legislation that gave Americans such programs including Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Job Corps, Head Start and Title I — all of which are still around in some form today (though the programs could be overhauled by the current Trump administration).
However, King and other civil rights stalwarts, including the NAACP and the Urban League, as well as noted author-activist Michael Harrington, whose book “The Other America: Poverty in the United States,” all believed that more needed to be done, according to ESP’s Warren.
“Even (US presidential candidate) Robert Kennedy was running on a platform of challenging poverty,” Warren said. “But it seemed this country almost abandoned the fight when he and Dr. King were both assassinated in 1968.
“Poverty is still a national problem we need to solve,” he concludes.
A recent report on poverty in the Memphis area from the National Civil Rights Museum and the University of Memphis has reignited debates and discussions about poverty. The report said some progress has been made since King’s death, including the overall poverty rate declining for African Americans. However, poverty for African Americans in the area is still two-and-a-half times higher than whites. And, African Americans earn half as much money as their white counterparts.
“This report shows that nothing really has changed,” said Watkins. “So, yes, we have plenty of folks who could use $500 and much, much more.”
As for who he thinks could possibly oversee a basic income program in Memphis, Watkins said, “I really don’t know,” not hedging toward the city or a nonprofit.
Back at a crowded Manna House, Spencer reiterates how much $500 in basic income could offer him some stability. Though he might know where his next meal is coming from, Spencer often doesn’t know where he will sleep at night.
It’s a constant struggle, he said.
“He’s absolutely working really hard to get off these streets,” said Gathje of Manna House about Spencer. “If anybody tells you they want to live that way, they’re lying.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.