We Need an Economic Bill of Rights

Political rights are not enough. Economic rights — the right to home, food, health care, a union, and a safe and stable planet — should be our rallying cry for a just country and world.

A homeless man sleeps under an American Flag blanket on a park bench in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Although the United States is richer and more productive than it ever has been, over forty million Americans live in poverty — roughly the same number as in 1933, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to office during the height of the Great Depression, and 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson announced his “war on poverty.”

Despite these troubling numbers, many economists assert the American Dream is alive and well, and that inequality is simply the price we as a nation must pay for economic growth. For years, both Republicans and Democrats accepted this fiction, though lately some Democrats have begun to return to fighting for more democratic control over the economy to broaden prosperity to the working class. Yet the party has no plan to address economic insecurity and poverty and better provide Americans with genuine freedom in their pursuit of happiness.

An economic bill of rights — one that expands on the freedoms enumerated in the Constitution by guaranteeing Americans basic economic security — should be the first step. It’s one that an increasing number of Americans support.

This spring, polling by Data for Progress found that 69 percent of likely voters are in favor of legislation guaranteeing economic security, while just 24 percent are opposed. Young voters, who are less likely to achieve the upward mobility America promises, are even more likely to support the idea, with four out of five voters under forty-five in favor of passing universal economic security. Among voters edging closer to economic peril, those making under $50,000, nearly three out of four want economic rights enshrined in law. This support transcends party affiliation: majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans all favor the passage of an economic bill of rights.

Economic rights are not a new idea. On January 11, 1944, as the Allies were turning the tide against fascism, President Roosevelt sat before an array of microphones to deliver his eleventh State of the Union address, which included his demand that Congress immediately take up an economic bill of rights to provide all Americans the right to a job at a living wage; the right to medical care; the right to a home; the right to an education; the right to economic protection from old age, sickness, and accident; and more. Roosevelt had sold Americans on the war as a fight for four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. It was time to focus on the last of these: to guarantee “cradle-to-grave economic security.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial in Washington, DC. (Library of Congress)

Although Roosevelt’s proposal was sui generis, he was drawing on an all-American history that reached back to its founding. Thomas Paine, the firebrand whose pamphlets spurred a fledgling nation to revolution, had called in Common Sense for the abolition of inheritance rights and the embrace of economic equality as essential in the fight for democracy. Alexander Hamilton argued that a strong centralized state, one that would shape markets and direct the economy to meet human needs, was the nation’s best “guarantor of liberty.” And Abraham Lincoln, through both the Homestead Act and Special Field Order No. 15, had sought to redistribute land to ensure universal economic security for white and black Americans alike (though without consideration for Native Americans, who were forcibly dispossessed through violent measures to provide parcels for white homesteaders).

Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 would forestall the push for economic rights but not extinguish it. Just two decades later, civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr (MLK), and Coretta Scott King would adopt the cause, linking civil rights with economic rights. Just prior to his murder, MLK penned an article for Look Magazine entitled “We need an economic bill of rights.” He believed that economic rights were a necessary condition for the full realization of civil and political rights, and his devotion to the Poor People’s Campaign after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts was a testament to this conviction.

Economic rights returned to the agenda with Sen. Bernie Sanders’s upstart presidential campaign in 2016. Sanders’s popularity, especially among younger voters, speaks to the wellspring of support for economic rights. In Data for Progress’s polling, voters across the political spectrum — again, including majorities of Independents and Republicans — responded positively to specific proposals ranging from guaranteeing people work through direct job creation at living wages to a massive buildout of social housing to ensure every American has a place to call home.

Some might argue that now is not the time to push for new rights given the threats to long-established civil, political, and reproductive rights. But as history has shown — in reparations-hobbled Germany after WWI, in Japan during the Great Depression — economic insecurity and a lack of public purpose give rise to demagogues and catalyze our worst impulses.

The fight for freedom must continue. Political rights are not enough. Civil and reproductive rights are not enough. Economic rights — the right to home, the right to food, the right to health care, the right to a union, and the right to a safe and stable planet — must be front and center if America is to achieve the founders’ promised “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As MLK wrote from a lonely jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, “We will reach the goal of freedom . . . because the goal of America is freedom.”