NJFAN and a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights

By Philip Harvey

From its founding in 1994, the goal of the National Jobs for All Network* has been a federal government commitment to ensure the availability of useful, living-wage work for every job seeker in the country—regardless of local or national economic conditions. Chief among the sources of inspiration for our goal is President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s groundbreaking 1944 proposal for a Second or Economic Bill of Rights. Among these rights 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

A year later—in his final State of the Union Message— the President reaffirmed his call for the realization of these rights and placed special emphasis on the importance of securing the right to decent work. Why that right? Not because he thought it was more important in and of itself, but because of its instrumental importance in making it possible to secure the other rights on his list. It was, he argued “the most fundamental” of these rights and the “one on which the fulfillment of the others in large degree depends.”

There are several reasons the right to decent work occupies this position, but the most obvious is the effect full employment at decent wages would have on the practical ability of the federal government to fund measures securing the other rights on FDR’s list. With access to decent employment guaranteed, the number and extent of needs government would have to satisfy with supplemental measures would be greatly reduced while the resources available to meet those needs would be substantially increased.

Poverty directly or indirectly attributable to involuntary unemployment and low-wage work would be eliminated. Only those people who are unable or not expected to be self-supporting would be at risk of needing full government support, while income-earning workers would need supplemental assistance only to the extent required to support exceptionally large families or families with special needs.

At the same time, full employment would provide all levels of government with additional resources. Their tax revenues would increase without increasing tax rates, and the additional spending used to achieve full employment could be used to meet social needs regardless of how the spending was funded. The latter resource pool would be especially significant if, as we advocate, the federal government adopted the New Deal direct-job-creation strategy to achieve full employment.

Policy formulations and achievements in other countries have also influenced our thinking. In his influential book, Full Employment in a Free Society (1944), British economist and statesman Sir William Beveridge defined full employment as—having always more vacant jobs than unemployed men [sic], not fewer jobs. It means that the jobs are at fair wages, of such a kind, and so located that the unemployed men [sic] can reasonably be expected to take them; it means, by consequence, that the normal lag between losing one job and finding another will be very short.

The Beveridge definition of full employment influenced NJFAN’s position that the unemployment rates mainstream economists associate with the achievement of full employment fall far short of that goal–a judgment unequivocally supported by job vacancy data published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (see the Real Count and Job Gap figure in this Newsletter). Historical evidence at both the national and local level in the United States and many other countries shows that when jobs are truly plentiful, unemployment rates fall to the 1% to 2% range. That is the goal required to fulfill the “right” of all job seekers “to a useful and remunerative job.”

FDR’s proposed Economic Bill of Rights was ground-breaking. It foreshadowed the inclusion of economic and social entitlements in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 as the foundation of an “International Bill of Rights” (with Eleanor Roosevelt playing a leading role in this achievement as the chair of the U.N. Committee that drafted the Universal Declaration).

Since then, a growing body of international human rights conventions and treaties has filled in gaps in both FDR’s list of economic rights and the Universal Declaration’s list. See the archive of Human Rights Instruments maintained by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the complementary Update on Human Rights and the Environment prepared by the Geneva Environment Network (a cooperative partnership of more than 100 environmental and sustainable development organizations established in 1999).

Authoritatively recognized but poorly enforced human rights like the economic entitlements on FDR’s list and the growing body of economic and social entitlements embodied in the Universal Declaration and its progeny are best understood as a form of Aspirational Law. They articulate our aspirations as human beings concerning the kind of species we are committed to becoming and the kind of societies we are committed to creating. Even if we are not yet willing and able as a species to live up to our own aspirations, we have gone on record to affirm them and challenge ourselves to join the struggle to realize them in practice.

The Economic Bill of Rights and a Movement for Economic Justice

FDR’s 1945 State of the Union Message not only reaffirmed his support for the enactment of legislation implementing his Economic Bill of Rights. It explained why the right to a decent job was listed first—because of its importance in facilitating the realization of other economic and social human rights. As NJFAN Chair, Trudy Goldberg states, “The Economic Bill of Rights, in asserting interdependence in the fulfillment of economic rights, implies that concerted action on the part of economic justice advocates would be mutually beneficial.”

It is the goal of the National Jobs for All Network—particularly through this NJFAN Newsletter—to reach out to individuals and organizations pursuing environmental, housing, educational, health care and other rights by featuring their work and explaining how the policies promoted by the Jobs for All Network would advance their goals. The National Jobs for All Network invites and urges advocates of economic rights to contribute reports of their work to this NJFAN Newsletter. We stand ready to join them in our mutual pursuit of economic justice.

*Previously National Jobs for All Coalition

Philip Harvey is Professor of Law and Economic, Rutgers Law School and Counsel to the Board of NJFAN. He is an internationally recognized authority on the right to decent work promoted by FDR and recognized as a universal entitlement in international human rights law.

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