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The Two Kings
By Joel Schwartz, an adjunct senior fellow of the Hudson Institute. This is adapted from the winter issue of City Journal.
A few years before his tragic death in 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously had a change of heart about the cure for black poverty. He began to look to big government to help poor blacks, even though, throughout his life, he'd preached the virtues of self-help. It was a change of worldview that was dead wrong, however understandable it might have been as a response to the grim reality then unfolding among America's inner-city blacks.
The early King believed in self-help because he grew up in a religious environment that nourished it. Southern black church leaders like King's father and grandfather stressed the economic, educational, and moral self-improvement of the black community as the best way for poor blacks to escape poverty and integrate themselves fully into American life.
King's father, Martin Luther Sr. (or "Daddy King"), exemplified this spirit of self-improvement. The son of a sharecropper, he relied on a muscular work ethic, spartan self-discipline, and a devotion to education to propel himself into the black middle class. As a teenager, he'd work double shifts in rail yards and later had an array of jobs, from making tires to driving trucks. Thrift enabled him to pay for evening classes at an Atlanta preparatory school; he would eventually obtain a theology degree from Morehouse College.
Daddy King instilled in his children the self-help ethos that brought him success. "The children got to school on time every morning; they did homework as soon as they reached home in the afternoon, then chores. After supper, they did some studying, then we had prayers." King noted that his father "always had sense enough not to live beyond his means."
Guided by his father's example, King celebrated self-help as central to the project to integrate blacks from the moment he became a public figure, and he continued to celebrate it through much of his career. In its details, his message of personal responsibility offers a time-tested recipe for getting ahead, as the success of countless immigrants, including Africans and West Indian blacks, proves.
The message centers on the work ethic. King rejected the liberal view that jobs requiring few or no skills were a "dead end." "Whatever your life's work is, do it well," he advised. "If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures." Indeed, black workers should hold themselves to universal standards of excellence, he strongly believed. In a 1957 address, he told his black audience to "set out to do a good job," not "a good Negro job." This ideal of hard work, meeting high universal standards, had to be central to the education of young blacks. Anything less would trap them in second-class status.
Thrift was a second key virtue that King thought could help blacks propel themselves into the mainstream. In his 1957 talk, he urged: "Let's live within our means. Save our money and invest it in meaningful ends." Blacks should especially "stop wasting money on frivolities," such as "all these alcoholic beverages."
Joining work and thrift in King's self-help vision was a no-nonsense stance toward black crime and disorderly behavior. "Let's be honest with ourselves and say that . . . our standards have lagged behind at many points," he declared in 1957. "Negroes constitute 10% of the population of New York City, and yet they commit 35% of the crime." A decade later, with black ghettos becoming so dangerous that a child raised in one had worse chances of survival than a U.S. soldier in World War II, he called for a moral renewal in the black community that might bring the chaos under control. "Through group unity we must convey to one another that our women must be respected, and that life is too precious to be destroyed in a Saturday night brawl, or a gang execution." For him, today's "faith-based institutions" would be indispensable to moral uplift.
A fourth part of King's self-help message was stress on the traditional family. The breakdown of the black family threatened to undermine any gains blacks made. King himself wasn't that much a success as a family man; but if he didn't walk the walk, he talked the talk. "We have eight times more illegitimacy than white persons," he reminded black listeners during the late 1950s. King's fears over black family breakdown even led him to become one of the few civil rights leaders not to reject outright Daniel Patrick Moynihan's controversial 1965 report, "The Negro Family," which warned about the rising illegitimacy rate among blacks (at the time 25%, well below today's).
King's belief in self-help made him critical of welfare. The system came laden with perverse incentives, he complained in the mid-1960s. Consider the regulations that "deprive a family of Aid to Dependent Children if a male resides in the house." Don't they entice a man "to abandon his family?" Welfare regulations, by placing stringent limits on the assets a recipient could possess, also sapped the work ethic. Smart welfare would shore up two-parent families and back recipients' efforts to find work. His dislike of welfare rules extended to wider misgivings about welfare itself. But though aware of the black problem of welfare dependency, he never gave full-bore criticism to the welfare system.
Such criticism would have been increasingly unlikely after 1965. From then on, King started to downplay his self-help message and began to propose instead a massive swelling of government programs as the best way to end black poverty.
Why did he change? One reason was pessimism that a capitalist economy could still provide the low-skill jobs that Daddy King had relied on. In a posthumous publication, King contended -- mistakenly, we can see in hindsight -- that the economy "began to take a turn for the worse" after 1964. "Thousands of jobs a week are disappearing in the wake of automation and other production efficiency techniques," he lamented. Without jobs, self-help clearly wasn't sufficient.
A deeper reason for the change may be that, as King went north and saw up close the emergence of the black underclass, he simply lost heart. Blacks in cities like Chicago were far more demoralized than Southern blacks. Illegitimacy, welfare dependency and criminality were more prevalent than in the South, with its stronger bourgeois values and church influence. He even began to speak of a black "underclass." Those who belonged to the group lacked "habits of discipline" that enable one to succeed at work.
The only answer the later King could see was for government to make things better. He scorned the multibillion-dollar War on Poverty because it didn't spend enough. Though he still encouraged self-help from time to time, he now openly rejected it too. What blacks really needed, the new King claimed, were government-provided jobs for those who wanted to work and a guaranteed income for all, regardless of whether they worked or not.
King's new worldview got things exactly wrong. No jobs program could have matched the millions of new high- and low-skill jobs created by the economy over the past two decades -- a dynamism ignited by the very "production efficiency techniques" that he feared. His proposal of a guaranteed income for all was equally misguided. We now know empirically that such subsidies significantly weaken the work ethic and correlate with family dissolution. If the nation had ever implemented the later King's plans, it would have discouraged the very behavior -- finding and keeping work, and getting and staying married -- that we know, and King once knew, reduces poverty.
But of course, in a broader sense, the nation did pursue the later King's big-government approach for 35 years, spending more than $5 trillion on antipoverty programs with little but failure to show for it. His earlier self-help strategy was the right one. Who knows what might have happened if he had stayed with it -- and lived?
©2002 The Wall Street Journal
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