An Economic Bill of Rights

by Holly Sklar

We need an Economic Bill of Rights for people. We already have economic bills of rights for corporations. They're called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). With them, corporations are trading freely on cheaper labor. According to a trinational labor commission study of the NAFTA labor market, real wages for workers in the US, Canada and Mexico all are declining.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed an Economic Bill of Rights for Americans in 1944. "True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security," Roosevelt said. "We cannot be content if some fraction of our ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed and insecure." That fraction is growing.

Today, according to the American College of Physicians, 42 million Americans have no health insurance, and another 29 million are underinsured. Lack of health insurance is associated with 25 percent higher risk of death.

The percentage of children living in extreme poverty has doubled since 1975. More than one-third of all poor children live in working poor families. Today's minimum wage is not a living wage.

More Americans are living in over-crowded and dangerous housing because of the growing gap between incomes and the cost of housing. Families need to earn nearly two-and-a-half times the $4.25 federal minimum wage to afford fair market rent on a two-bedroom apartment, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

It is not right for a society to demand that people work for a living, while denying many a living wage.

Today, more than 7 million Americans are officially unemployed, according to the government's inadequate measure. But, as Business Week put it, "Increasingly, the labor market is filled with surplus workers who are not being counted as unemployed."

There is a shortage of jobs, not a shortage of work. Today, millions of people need work, and urgent work needs people - from creating affordable housing, to repairing bridges and building mass transit, to cleaning up pollution and converting to renewable energy, to staffing after-school programs and community centers.

The US is roaring back to the destructive inequality of the 1920s. While workers are being downsized, corporate profits are being upsized - rising 15 percent in 1995. Business Week reports that, while factory workers' inflation- adjusted pay fell by 2 percent, average CEO compensations jumped by 27 percent. Today, the top 1 percent of American households have about the same amount of wealth as the entire bottom 95 percent.

It is time to reverse the rise in inequality and provide a solid foundation upon which all Americans can build.

An Economic Bill of Rights would include:

  • the right to a job at a living wage

  • the right to equal pay for equal or comparable work

  • the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

  • the right to adequate health care

  • the right to a decent home

  • the right to a good education - from preschool through college

  • the right to paid leave for the care of newborns & sick family members

  • the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of illness, old age, disability, accident and unemployment

  • the right to national and international regulations ensuring fair labor practices, environmental sustainability and worker/consumer health safety.

As President Roosevelt declared in a message to Congress on the 1937 Fair Labor Standards Act: "Goods produced under conditions which do not meet a rudimentary standard of decency should be regarded as contraband and ought not to be able to pollute the channels of interstate commerce." The same should be true internationally.

Only with an Economic Bill of Rights will Americans be able to realize the rights to equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence. An Economic Bill of Rights is embraced in the congressional "Living Wage, Jobs For All Act," HR 1050, which now has 27 co- sponsors.

Holly Sklar is a Boston writer whose latest book is Chaos or Community? Seeking Solutions, Not Scapegoats for Bad Economics (South End Press, 1995). Reprinted courtesy of the Progressive Median Project. Copyright 1996, Holly Sklar. For information on obtaining PMP's series of progressive, op-ed essays, contact: PMP, 409 E. Main St., Madison, WI 53703, (608) 257-4626

(Reprint, Earth Island Journal, Fall 1996 edition)

Copyright © 1996. The Light Party.

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