The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Frances would say, “Seize the moment — before it passes”

In Biography, Legislation Today, New Deal Legislation on May 6, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Much has been made of economist Paul Romer’s statement, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Yes, Congress passed the Economic Recovery Act, and yes, it was huge. But unfortunately, much of that money is now going to shore up states’ income-starved budgets — instead of stimulating the economy in new ways. And another huge amount has gone to shore up financial institutions, without a penny of that trickling down to regular people.

We’re not done, yet. I hope no one thinks that we are. We have decades of painful diminution to make up if we expect the middle class to return to its previous robustness, and that’s going to take massive investment. Of tax dollars.

If we don’t do it now, it may never happen. There may never be another chance, and the United States will continue its downward slide.

President Franklin Roosevelt and his Labor secretary, Frances Perkins, had a vision of the kind of place we could be living in today, the sort of standard of living we could be enjoying. It’s embodied in their “Economic Bill of Rights.” Their initial work — including social security, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage — was passed in 1935. But the rest of the list and most notably, national health care, was interrupted by the onslaught of World War II.

Yet, they never lost sight of those social justice goals.

January 11, 1944, FDR said this in an address:

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.

As World War II came to a close, FDR and Perkins knew it was time to again turn to their social justice agenda. Unfortunately, illness and death intervened. FDR died on April 12, 1945, before these goals could be enacted.

Frances Perkins, upon hearing of FDR's death on April 12, 1945. (Image: NARA photo, SSA website

Frances Perkins, upon hearing of FDR's death on April 12, 1945. (Image: NARA photo, SSA website

Imagine what America would be like if these rights were recognized and supported. Sixty-five years after the “Economic Bill of Rights” was announced, we have the opportunity to make them real. But only if we move fast. Who knows what fate lies in store for us?

  1. For a peek at what life with these economic rights might be like, read Going Dutch – How I learned to love the European welfare state ( by Russell Shorto. We might have done some things differently, but still…

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