The Economic Bill of Rights will end poverty and economic despair.

Inequality kills. The life expectancies of working class Americans have been declining in recent years. The life expectancy gap between our richest and poorest counties have been increasing since 1980 and is now 21 years. After five decades of stagnant hourly wages, working-class people are dying form what are now called “deaths of despair” from suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, and behavior-related diseases among people whose long-term social and economic prospects are bleak.

The Economic Bill of Rights is integral to our Ecosocialist Green New Deal. The Economic Bill of Rights makes it the responsibility of the federal government to guarantee the following economic human rights:

  1. A Living-Wage Job
  2. An Income Above Poverty
  3. Affordable Housing
  4. Comprehensive Health Care
  5. Lifelong Free Public Education
  6. A Secure Retirement

The Fight for an Economic Bill of Rights

President Franklin Roosevelt called upon Congress to enact an Economic Bill of Rights in his last two State of the Union addresses in 1944 and 1945. Every Democratic President from Roosevelt to Obama had a least one two-year congressional term in office with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, but none of the economic rights Roosevelt proposed found their way into law, not even during the Great Society years under President Johnson when the Democrats had commanding majorities in both houses. Progressive Democrats did introduced legislation for full employment and national health insurance in 1945. These programs were planks in Democratic platforms for decades. But the job guarantee was killed when the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill was adopted in neutered form under the Carter administration in 1978. National health insurance taken out of the Democratic platform with the Clinton nomination in 1992.

The civil rights movement revived Roosevelt’s call for an Economic Bill of Rights with the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates recount in A Freedom Budget for All Americans, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, and the other organizers of the march believed that to secure civil rights for black people, the black freedom movement had to move “from civil rights to human rights” and build a multiracial movement with the power to secure for economic rights for all. They were confronting a mounting white backlash to black civil rights led by Dixiecrat Democrats and Goldwater Republicans that was being mobilized by stoking fears among economically insecure white workers of competition from black workers. The 1963 March was followed up by the Freedom Budget of 1966 submitted to Congress to implement the program. But the war on poverty was being lost in Vietnam, prompting King to call for the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 to occupy Washington with nonviolent resistance intent on forcing Congress to withdraw from Vietnam and enact the Economic Bill of Rights to end poverty.

Economic Bill of Rights Amendment to the US Constitution

It is time to pick up the torch for an Economic Bill of Rights and make it the law of the land. While all of these rights can be realized by federal legislation now, we favor a constitutional amendment establishing an Economic Bill of Rights that will give citizens the legal standing to enforce these rights. Such a constitutional amendment could read:

Section 1.
All citizens shall have the rights to:

  • useful work earning at least enough to meet basic needs,
  • a minimum income sufficient to meet basic needs,
  • decent and affordable housing,
  • health care of equal high quality,
  • a public education of equal high quality, and
  • a retirement income sufficient to meet basic needs.

Section 2.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


Implementing the Economic Bill of Rights

1. The Right to a Living-Wage Job

We will enact a federal jobs program that creates a federal job guarantee to every American willing and able to work in public services and public works (infrastructure).

If you cannot find a living-wage job in the private sector, you go the Employment Office—not the Unemployment Office—and get your living-wage job.

The program will be like New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s, but expanded to guarantee full employment. Like the WPA, most of the public works and public service jobs will be planned by local communities and funded 90% by the federal government and 10% by local governments to make sure local the local jobs are productive and not boondoggles.

Local governments will plan public works and public service projects that create reservoir of jobs on the shelf ready to go when unemployed people need work. Larger-scale infrastructure projects at the state and national level will also be part of the program.

By paying a living-wage for public jobs, wages in the private sector will rise to a living wage because the private sector will be forced to compete for workers by paying a living wage.

By employing the unemployed during economic slow downs, the job guarantee will be a more powerful and targeted counter-cyclical policy than generalized deficit spending. It will bring income directly to workers instead of hoping deficits will increase demand and investment that indirectly trickles down as jobs for the unemployed.

The full employment program’s cost can pay for itself over the entire course of the business cycle. The public workers will pay taxes. They will not need federal unemployment insurance, Medicaid, SNAP, and other public assistance. Some goods and services produced by public workers could be sold. Rutgers lawyer and economist Philip Harvey illustrated how a job guarantee could substantially or fully cover its costs over the course of the 1977 to 1986 business cycle in Securing the Right to Employment: Social Welfare Policy and the Unemployed in the United States (Princeton University Press, 1989). In 2011, Harvey made an updated net cost estimate for living-wage public jobs during the Great Recession, assuming no income from the program for the sale of goods and services. The net cost was $28.6 billion to create 1 million public jobs, which would also create an additional 0.4 million jobs due to the multiplier effect of the public jobs stimulus.

2. The Right to an Income Above Poverty

We will end poverty by guaranteeing every person has an income above the poverty line.

The income guarantee will be built into the federal progressive income tax structure. If your income is below poverty, the federal government will send you a monthly check to bring your income above the poverty line.

If your income is above the poverty line, you will pay taxes on your income according to the progressively graduated income tax brackets.

We will update the official poverty line to reflect a realistic income needed for self-sufficiency to pay for basic needs. Researchers find that 200% of the current poverty line is a more realistic poverty line.

As the civil rights movement turned “from civil rights to human rights” in the 1960s to address widespread poverty, it added the demand for a guaranteed income to the Economic Bill of Rights that President Roosevelt had proposed. The income guarantee was part of the 1966 Freedom Budget proposed to Congress and the Economic Bill of Rights demanded by 1968 Poor People’s Campaign

We do not accept the common belief that poverty is intractable or a difficult problem to solve. Poor people simply need more money. They are poor because they don’t have enough money. Most poor people are in households with hard-working low-wage workers. A guaranteed income above the poverty line would end poverty.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. explained in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1968), “I’m now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income….The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”

For the minority of people who are poor in part because they have mental, emotional, or addiction problems, appropriate social services to help them should be provided.

Not everyone is able to work or should work. Many are too young, too sick, or too old. Others are members of families and households who take care of the young, sick, and old. The income guarantee will ensure that household caregivers are not poor.

The income guarantee will also enable people, usually women, the freedom to leave abusive relationships without severe economic consequences.

The income guarantee we will enact is often called the Negative Income Tax (NIT). We prefer it to the Universal Basic Income (UBI) because it targets the benefits to those who need it, provides a sufficient benefit to end poverty, and costs a fraction of a UBI.

The UBI popularized by Andrew Yang in the 2020 presidential primary campaign would pay to every person, rich as well as poor, $1,000 a month, which is about the current poverty line for a single adult. It would cost $3.8 trillion a year, which would be about a fifth of the nation’s GDP and fourth-fifths of its current federal revenues.

A model with high-end cost assumptions for a household-based NIT income guarantee set at 200% of the current US poverty line would cost about $500 billion a year.

With the provision of other public goods and services like Medicare for All and universal child care and pre-K, a realistic poverty line based on a basic needs self-sufficiency budget would be lower and the cost of the income guarantee reduced by the corresponding amount.

3. The Right to Affordable Housing

Public Housing and Universal Rent Control is how we will provide affordable housing for all who need it within a decade.

We will build 25 million new units of public housing in a 10-year, $2.5 trillion public housing program that is part of our Ecosocialist Green New Deal. 40% of the units, 10 million units, will be set aside for low-income people seeking affordable housing. This set aside will more than cover the current shortage of 7.8 million units of affordable housing for low income (7.5 million) and homeless (400,000) households and individuals.

These public housing developments will be high quality, humanly scaled, and designed to be energy efficient and powered, heated, and cooled by clean energy. The public housing will be mixed income, open to affluent and middle-income people as well as low-income people, thus reducing the race and class segregation that prior public housing development in the US made worse. The mixed-income nature of these developments with rents scaled to income will make the projects more financially self-reliant. The public housing construction will be coordinated with transportation planning for pedestrians, bicycles, and mass transit to create walkable communities. This housing program will be a jobs program, a clean energy program, desegregation program, and a walkable communities program as well as an affordable housing program.

It is much less costly for government to directly build public housing units than to subsidize private developers to build affordable units with tax breaks and grants. The latter approach has been the dominant housing policy since the 1970s and the housing affordability crisis has only increased under this policy. Relying on the private market to provide sufficient affordable housing has never worked because more profits are to be found in upscale housing than in housing for working-class people.

The United States has 139.6 housing units of which 43.3 million are renter occupied. With only 1.1 million units, public housing accounts for only 0.8% of all housing units and 2.5% of renter-occupied units. By building 25 million new units, public housing will account for about one-third of rental units, which is more typical of many European countries where public housing is more than 20% and as much as 60% of housing units in Vienna, Austria. By operating to provide housing at cost rather than profit maximization, this larger public housing sector will force the private sector to moderate rents in order to compete for tenants.

While affordable public housing units are being built, we need to protect tenants now from being displaced from their homes and communities and perhaps rendered homeless by rising rents. Rents are rising much faster than incomes and the cost of living in cities and towns across the nation. We will therefore enact a federal program of Universal Rent Control that will cap rent increases each year and end evictions without a just cause so that people can stay in their homes. The federal government instituted federal rent control during World War II when economic resources were devoted to the war effort and away from housing development, creating a tight housing market. We should do the same now to protect tenants in today’s tight housing markets.

4. The Right to Comprehensive Health Care

We will enact Medicare for All as a Community-Controlled National Health Service. The Natonal Health Service will provide comprehensive health care for all residents of the United States at no cost to patients at the point of health care delivery and free choice of doctors for patients. It will cover all medically necessary services, including doctor, hospital, preventive, long-term care, mental health, reproductive health care, dental, vision, prescription drug, and medical supply costs.

In the first year, it will be a National Health Insurance program where a single public agency, Medicare, pays health care providers for all medically necessary services they deliver. Over the next ten years, we will build out a National Health Service to that will socialize the delivery as well as the payment of health care services. Hospitals, clinics, and drug and medical supply companies will become publicly owned. Doctors, nurses, and other health care workers will become salaried public employees. The system will be democratically managed by locally-elected health boards that federate at the state and national level for overall planning and coordination.

Paying health care providers salaries instead of fees-for-service will help control costs. It will end the practice of running more patients through faster and giving them unneeded tests and treatments in order to maximize income. The National Health Service will increase the number of salaried doctors, nurses, and other health care workers so they can focus on patient care instead of income maximization.

Democratic community control will enable underserved communities to get an equitable allocation of health care resources and end the wasteful practice of hospitals competing for customers by duplicating more expensive medical equipment than a health care district needs while many neighborhoods are lacking in community doctors and clinics.

The National Health Service will be funded by progressive taxes. 95% of taxpayers will pay less in those taxes than they pay now in taxes for public health programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA, plus insurance company premiums, co-pays, and deductibles, plus other out-of-pocket payments for tests, treatments, and drugs not covered by their private insurance plans.

5. The Right to Lifelong Free Public Education

We will enact federal policies and programs to ensure that every person has equal access to high-quality, lifelong, tuition-free public education, from pre-K through university, technical, and continuing adult education. Each of us should be able to go to school as far as our interests and abilities take us.

We will:

  • End all federal support for the privatization of public education through voucher systems and privately-managed charter schools.
  • Defend elected school boards and oppose their replacement by mayoral or state control.
  • End all federal support for high-stakes testing and support teachers and parents in local school districts to provide their students with a well-rounded education.
  • Oppose educational tracking that reproduces existing race and class inequalities and limits students’ learning opportunities. All students should have access to both academic and vocational learning throughout their education.
  • Establish federal financing of all public education paid for by progressive federal income and wealth taxes instead of unequally distributed and regressive local property taxes.
  • Enact federal legislation and funding to reduce the student-teacher ratio to 15 to 1 in all public schools.
  • Enact federal legislation and funding to extend public school for pre-K children starting at age 3 on a voluntary basis.
  • Enact federal legislation and funding to establish tuition-free public university and technical education of all kinds for everyone who wants it.
  • Enact federal legislation and funding so everyone 18 years or over can receive a minimum livable income for four years of attendance at a post-secondary educational institution, like the post World War II GI Bill of Rights provided to veterans.
  • Relieve student debt by enacting a federal student loan program that will provide relief from existing student loan debts and provide affordable zero-interest loans going forward.
  • Fully fund and staff the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
  • Take affirmative action to end racial discrimination and segregation in school systems, including federal legislation requiring the redrawing of school district lines that now serve as lines of race and class segregation in order to create racially and economically integrated schools.
  • Fully fund historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), minority-serving institutions (MSIs), and tribal colleges and universities.
  • Strengthen and increase funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to ensure that students with disabilities and special needs have equal access to a high-quality education.
  • Tie federal public school funding to an increase in teacher pay to a starting salary of no less than $60,000 tied to cost of living, years of service, and other qualifications.
  • Invest in school infrastructure to repair, construct, and upgrade public schools for health and safety; disabled access; heating, cooling, and lighting conducive to learning; and up-to-date technology, including high-speed internet.
  • Fund community schools, particularly in low-income communities, that provide education, health, and social services to students and their families, including healthy meals, preventive health care, dental care, vision care, mental health care, English as a second language, and adult education, and after-school and summer education and recreation programs.

6. The Right to a Secure Retirement

We will double Social Security so every person of retirement age has a livable income. The Social Security system will become a true a national retirement system.

Social Security benefits only replace about a third of a retiree’s average final wage, which is not enough to live on when it is your primary—and perhaps your only—source of retirement income.

Doubling Social Security benefits could be paid for by lifting the ceiling on Social Security taxes for high-income earners, ending the deduction for business pension expenses, eliminating the home mortgage deduction, and closing tax loopholes for the rich.

A more progressive way to finance increased Social Security benefits would be through more progressive income and wealth taxes instead of relying on regressive payroll taxes.

Retirement is in crisis today because Baby Boomers have faced stagnant real wages for five decades, their entire working lives. Meanwhile, the costs of housing, health care, and college have increased far faster than the rate of inflation. Many Baby Boomers have spent their incomes raising their families and now face a retirement of poverty.

Other sources of retirement income have been reduced. Defined benefit pensions have been steadily replaced by employers with defined contribution plans, most often 401k plans. To the extent workers have been able to contribute to defined contribution plans, their retirement assets and income are subject to financial market ups and downs, which can be a big problem if the markets are down when you are retired. Meanwhile, many of the defined benefit pensions that remained have gone bankrupt or cut benefits.

A law voted through in the dead of night with bipartisan support in 2014 called the Multi-Employer Pension Reform Act removed the protection of earned benefits that had been previously guaranteed by the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). More than 1.5 million workers and retirees in multi-employer pension plans have had their pensions cut as a result. Howie Hawkins is one of them. His Teamsters pension was cut by 19%.

We will sign an executive order to impose a moratorium on future pension cuts and reverse the cuts to retirement benefits that have already been made. We will fight to enact the Keep Our Pension Promises Act, first introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders in 2015, to prevent the pensions of up to 10 million workers and retirees in distressed multi-employer pension plans from being cut. This pension reform act will make troubled multi-employer plans solvent by closing two tax loopholes for very wealthy people.

Howie Hawkins 2020

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