Still a Long Way to Go
On January 11, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his annual State of the Union Message to Congress. In the midst of World War II, he set forth plans for the coming year and preparations for life in the US following the war. He included both concrete proposals for immediate legislation and other more long-term changes to help the nation progress socially and economically in the future. Part of this speech reads as follows:
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.
These are high ideals, indeed. Ideals that have not yet been achieved legislatively or in practice in this nation in the nearly 70 years that have passed since they were first enumerated in this speech. Many attempts have been made to secure most of them over the years, often to be defeated time and again in the legislative process at the federal and/or state level. Some are in the process of implementation at various stages of completion right now – as is the case with the Affordable Care Act.
All of these goals are achievable. Unfortunately, to varying degrees, none of them has been completely realized in practice or in law yet. The founding fathers placed the original Bill of Rights directly into the Constitution in the form of the first 10 amendments. This second bill of rights has not seen the same treatment. Laws attempting to implement them have been sporadically implemented and often face attempts to rescind or contract their efficacy in achieving their stated goals. Attempts to lower levels of Social Security benefits and failure to keep the federal minimum wage at a level that enables people to “earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation” are two stark examples of this.
Gains are made, as we saw with the institution of Medicare and Medicaid, as well as civil rights and voting rights legislation. Many of these gains seem to be constantly under attack and threatened with reversal, especially in the areas of workers’ rights and programs devoted to provide for the needs of the young and the elderly. Economic security, a central theme in this bill of rights, is seen by too many people as not being important enough to guarantee to all members of our society.Suggestions and proposals that we do more to meet the lofty goals established in this second bill of rights are most often met with claims that we cannot afford to fund them or even that such notions should not be seen as rights at all. As the original Bill of Rights did a good job of protecting ours rights to life and liberty, they certainly did not suffice in meeting our right to the pursuit of happiness, which is why FDR rightly advocated the adoption and implementation of the ideas he set forth in this address.
Contrary to the naysayers, I agree with Roosevelt that these ideas should, in fact, be treated as rights in the same manner as the original protections given in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. We cannot afford NOT to implement them on any grounds, least of which would be monetary cost. To do so seems to me to be more an excuse to conserve the sense of entitlement to the privileged classes over the rest of us.To profess to believe in the notion of inherent equality of all people while pursuing policies that perpetuate and even exacerbate important inequalities in the opportunity to develop as individuals and communities would be hypocritical in the extreme. To do so and consider this a just society would be laughable were it not so tragic to so many.
Similar goals were set out for citizens of all nations of the world shortly after the end of World War II in a document entitled “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. This document is another excellent statement of how we believe people should be treated and respected as human beings and was passed by the UN General Assembly in 1948. These goals have obviously met with similar difficulties in implementation on the international level that FDR’s Second Bill of Rights has faced here in the USA.
I encourage all to read these documents and push our governments to make meaningful gains in their implementation as soon as possible. Another 70 years is too long to wait for us all to live in a more just, compassionate and fair nation and world. Links to both are listed below.