BY AJA BROWN, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR, THE HILL - 01/17/21 12:00 PM ET
In 1963’s “Strength to Love,” Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.”
The share of income held by the nation’s top 10 percent has risen substantially since King wrote those words. The combined net worth of the wealthiest Americans grew by over $1 trillion in 2020, while the less affluent faced overdraft fees, late payment notices and the looming fear of losing shelter awaiting many once the national eviction moratorium expires.
Inequality is much higher in the U.S. than in other industrialized nations and mobility between classes has taken a nosedive. It has never been harder for an American to realize the “American Dream.” For the first time in our nation’s history, children are projected to earn less, shoulder more debt and live shorter lifespans than their parents. This isn’t progress. These aren’t the outcomes of a thriving nation. Yet, this is America today.
In my city, Compton, Calif., we are calling for the immediate abolition of poverty in the United States. This should not be radical. The radical position is to accept a reality in which millions of people are living in abject poverty while the stock market soars and the richest Americans have more than ever. It’s clear the system isn’t broken. It’s working exactly the way it was designed — to perpetuate existing power and wealth structures and directly protect white supremacy through Jim Crow laws and the remnants that still exist today, prevalent in every sector of our society. King knew this and knew the people who most needed help would be left behind. He also recognized that we collectively bear the burden and the costs of poverty and inequality.
Six months ago, I connected with Jain Family Institute and Nika Soon-Shiong of Fund for Guaranteed Income to envision the possibilities of impacting lives in Compton and the opportunity to further the movement for a national guaranteed income policy during such a critical time in our country. I had just joined former Stockton, Calif., Mayor Michael Tubbs and a founding team of mayors to launch the Mayors for Guaranteed Income. We assembled a team with Jamarah Hayner as co director and a robust community advisory council to embark on launching a landmark initiative that will deliver guaranteed income — recurring, direct cash transfers — to over 800 low-income Compton residents for two years, without litmus tests and with no judgment for who you are or what you’ve done. We have named our initiative the Compton Pledge.
The positive impacts of guaranteed income have been studied for decades, with evidence indicating that cash transfers empower people to live lives of dignity. A national income floor would mean Compton families won’t lose their home when they lose their job, they will still be able to put food on the table if they have a health emergency and when they are part-time service workers, full-time mothers and overtime teachers to their kids all at once, they can have the financial stability necessary to escape the survival mode mindset.
For those privileged to have never experienced poverty, the best way that I can describe it is living in a pressure cooker. The perpetual stress of surviving against systemic obstacles and earning enough to maintain shelter, food and the basic necessities of life while raising children abounding with love, hope and dignity is a weight that can suffocate the most spirited soul, brilliant mind and hopeful heart.
Our city will propose a resolution this month supporting the BREATHE Act; a modern day Civil Rights Act that gets to the root of the systemic problems we face. The BREATHE Act calls for the U.S. to begin divesting from the punitive criminal justice system in order to invest more in education, health, environmental justice, housing and economic opportunities.
The Compton Pledge is a commitment to build people’s power. A pledge to give people the economic cushion they need to live a life with dignity and the mental and emotional space to breathe and be relieved of the constant pressure of navigating through poverty exasperated by systemic inequalities. Our existing system of public assistance has never been about valuing human life; it has been shaming and divisive. The opposite of poverty is not simply wealth; it is liberation, prosperity and peace.
COVID-19 has exposed what happens when Americans who were barely hanging on before the pandemic fall through the tattered social safety net: record food bank lines in the richest country on Earth (that also happens to be the biggest food exporter), people dying in underserved communities, people with nothing in their bank accounts and millions who don’t qualify for traditional forms of welfare.
We believe we’re doing our part to implement King’s dream. Our program will be one of very few to include our fellow community members who have been incarcerated or who are undocumented. We intentionally included those considered to be living on the margins because we value all life, regardless of legal status or prior debts paid to society.
This is a call for a new paradigm to end the shaming of people who live in poverty, people who have been incarcerated (in the country that incarcerates the most people both in real numbers and as a percentage of population) and people who are undocumented who work alongside us every day, build our economy and contribute to the fabric of our communities.
In 1967’s “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community” King wrote, “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” He emphasized, “Now, our country can do this.”
These words ring ever true today. It is abundantly clear that for too long we have prioritized punitive measures, incarceration and the perpetuation of poverty, while undervaluing healthy families, healthy communities and human life. We can move from surviving to thriving when we prioritize humanity over dividends, love over strength and community over chaos.
Our country can do this. We can afford it. It is time.
Mayor Aja Brown made history at 31 as the youngest mayor ever elected in the City of Compton. She is an established leader in the movement for guaranteed income and recently launched the largest city-based guaranteed income program in the country, The Compton Pledge.