Voices from the Past: FDR on the “Economic Rights” of All Americans

RooseveltPictureEconBillofRights… Including the right to a living wage, housing, and health care.  More than 70 years later, Bernie Sanders says he is a “Socialist”, but he sounds a lot like Franklin Roosevelt in arguing, in effect, for a new “New Deal.”

It’s January 1944.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt is nearing the end of his third term.  He is just back from the Cairo and Tehran Conferences where he met with the leaders of Britain, Russia and China.  The purpose of the meetings was to discuss strategies for defeating Germany and Japan and how the Allies would manage the peace once the war had come to an end.

Returning home, FDR is concerned that, once the war is over, the country may repeat the retrenchment and isolationism that followed W.W. I.  He uses the occasion of his 1944 Annual Message to Congress, his first major speech after returning from the Mideast, to argue that Americans need to pull together not just to win the war, but to build a strong and robust post-war economy.

But that can’t happen, FDR believes, if large segments of the population are left behind, as they were in the Great Depression, an era of massive unemployment and poverty that marked the initial years of Roosevelt’s presidency.

To ensure that doesn’t happen again, FDR proposes an Economic Bill of Rights to supplement the political Bill of Rights handed down from the founding of the Republic.  He envisions the U.S. as an economic powerhouse second to none in the world – a country in which no one lives in poverty or wants for the necessities of life, including a living wage, a decent home, quality medical care and education.

Normally Roosevelt would have delivered his speech in person before Congress.  However, FDR was apparently ill with the flu and chose instead to deliver the speech by radio as a fireside chat from the White House.

The following excerpt speaks directly to Roosevelt’s call for an economic Bill of Rights:

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.

Today, we are experiencing some of the slowest economic growth in modern history.  Wages are stagnating and people are finding it increasingly difficult to find decent jobs.

This is the type of economy, Roosevelt warned, that is “the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

Of all the candidates,  Bernie Sanders in particular has been unequivocal in his call to tackle poverty and wage inequality in the tradition of FDR and the New Deal.

Sanders writes:

Let’s be clear, it is a national disgrace that 46.5 million Americans are living in poverty today, the largest number on record. It is a national disgrace that at 21.8 percent, the U.S. has the highest childhood poverty rate of any major country on earth … Here in the United States, significant progress has been made but much more needs to be done to provide dignity and opportunity to all Americans regardless of income.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt has a “Special Place in Heaven” among liberal Democrats.  And from that special place,  we strongly suspect that FDR is cheering Bernie on and praying that he will finish the work that FDR began more than 70 years earlier.