FDR and the Economic Bill of Rights 11.01.1944   Search

1944 State of the Union Lays Out the Intended Social and Economic Rights of Americans

Howard Zinn


n the book Original Zinn: Conversations on History and Politics, Howard Zinn said in an interview:

"That is a forgotten moment in the presidency of FDR, when he outlined an Economic Bill of Rights. It is still sort of a surprise to Americans, who know that we have a Bill of Rights, to be told that this Bill of Rights applies only to certain political rights, such as the right to free speech and assembly, the right to a lawyer, the right to a fair trail. People are surprised when you tell them, "But, you know, the Bill of Rights does not include economic rights, does not include the right to health care, does not include the right to a job, does not include the right to decent housing, does not include the right to food." And without these rights, without economic rights, how can people make use of the political rights? Because, after all, what good is freedom of speech if you don't have the wherewithal to utilize that freedom? What good is the right to counsel if you can't afford a lawyer, and therefore you must have a court-appointed lawyer? All of the political rights are subject to the weakness that if there is no Economic Bill of Rights, then they don't have very much meaning."

I had not heard of the Economic Bill of Rights of Franklin Roosevelt's 1944 State of the Union until I read about it in Howard Zinn's interview. During Roosevelt's State of the Union address on January 11, 1944, FDR argued that the political rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights were not enough to ensure the promise of the Declaration of Independence for the pursuit of happiness for all American citizens. He wanted Congress to pass an Economic Bill of Rights that would insure that all Americans have a right to remunerative employment, the right to health care, the right to education, and the right to housing.

These Economic Bill of Rights were a culmination of the New Deal philosophy that evolved during the Roosevelt presidency. The New Deal was introduced by FDR in the 1930s to help combat the Great Depression and to help cushion Americans from the worst aspects of the downward economic turn that started in 1929. When FDR was inaugurated in 1933, a quarter of the United States were unemployed. Industrial output had fallen by half since 1929. Farm prices had fallen by 60%. In 32 of the 48 states, banks had to close due. With these conditions, the New Deal wanted to give relief to the tens of millions of unemployed, set the economy on the road to recovery, and reform the financial and banking systems through regulation and government agencies. I had read that the New Deal philosophy was that the federal government had an obligation to protect its most vulnerable citizens from the worst effects of the market economy. It set about to do so through a series of government programs: the Works Progress Administration; the National Recovery Administration; the Agricultural Administration; the Social Security System; the National Labor Relations Board; the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission; and several other programs.

FDR 1944

Here is an excerpt of FDRs 1944 State of the Union:

"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. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.

One of the great American industrialists of our day--a man who has rendered yeoman service to his country in this crisis--recently emphasized the grave dangers of "rightist reaction" in this Nation. All clear-thinking businessmen share his concern. Indeed, if such reaction should develop--if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called "normalcy" of the 1920's--then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.

I ask the Congress to explore the means for implementing this economic bill of rights--for it is definitely the responsibility of the Congress so to do. Many of these problems are already before committees of the Congress in the form of proposed legislation. I shall from time to time communicate with the Congress with respect to these and further proposals. In the event that no adequate program of progress is evolved, I am certain that the Nation will be conscious of the fact.

Our fighting men abroad--and their families at home--expect such a program and have the right to insist upon it. It is to their demands that this Government should pay heed rather than to the whining demands of selfish pressure groups who seek to feather their nests while young Americans are dying."


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