BROOKLYN (Workers World Today) – It has been 84 years since President Franklin Roosevelt formed the Committee on Economic Security in June 1934 to make recommendations during the height of the Great Depression on how to provide economic security for all Americans. The five-member committee included three of the most progressive New Dealers: Henry Wallace, the Secretary of Agriculture; Harry Hopkins, who was administering the first public jobs program; and Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor, who chaired the committee.
The December 1934 report of the committee recommended Employment Assurance (public jobs for the unemployed), Unemployment Compensation (income for the involuntarily unemployed), Old-Age Pensions (Social Security), Welfare (income for single mothers, their children, and others who cannot work due to disability), and National Health Insurance (publicly funded health care for all).
In 1935, Congress enacted and the President signed into law the major pieces of legislation that we today associate with the New Deal: the Works Progress Administration public jobs program, Unemployment Compensation, and the Social Security Act, which included old age pensions, disability income, and aid to families with dependent children. Universal health care was not included at that time due to opposition from doctors and hospitals.
Roosevelt returned to the question of economic security for all in his last State of the Union address in 1945. He called for an Economic Bill of Rights, including the rights to a useful job, living wages, a decent home, comprehensive health care, a good education, and a livable income for those who are caring for young children or too young, old, sick, injured, or disabled to work.
The Democrats put programs to realize these economic rights into their platform between the 1940s and the mid-1970s. But they never passed more than partial programs to realize these rights, even at the height of the anti-poverty Great Society under President Johnson.
The civil rights movement picked up the demand for a full Economic Bill of Rights with the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom and the 1966 Freedom Budget. They added an end to discrimination in employment, education, and housing to the program, which had not been part of Roosevelt’s program out of deference the southern Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party coalition. The leading organizers of the March and Budget – leaders in the Socialist Party of America such as A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Michael Harrington – believed that economic security for all would secure the civil and political rights for blacks that were supposed to be realized by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. They believed that the mounting white backlash would be undermined because whites would have no longer have reason fear economic competition from blacks for scarce employment, educational, and housing opportunities.
After the landslide Johnson election in 1964, Randolph, Rustin, and Harrington believed that a permanent labor-liberal-black electoral majority for the Democrats would be able to enact the full Economic Bill of Rights. But the Democrats faltered as their war in Vietnam sucked away resources that could have gone to the domestic anti-poverty program. Randolph who had been imprisoned for opposing World War I, Rustin who had been imprisoned for refusing to be drafted into a segregated Army during World War II, and Harrington who had come out of the pacifist Catholic Worker movement all refused to publicly oppose the Vietnam war in order to work with Democratic officials on getting the Freedom Budget enacted.
Martin Luther King, Jr. took a different path. In 1967, he came out against the war and after briefly considering a Peace and Freedom Party candidacy for president, launched the Poor People’s Campaign to occupy the mall in Washington, D.C. in 1968 with an encampment that would stay until Congress enacted the Economic Bill of Rights. In retrospect, King seems to have had a better sense of where American politics were headed. Even though every Democratic president from Roosevelt through Obama has had at least one 2-year period with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the Economic Bill of Rights – a job guarantee, a guaranteed minimum income, universal health care, and sufficient funding to provide decent homes and good schools for all – was never enacted. The right to a job was abandoned during the Carter administration with the gutting of the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill in 1977. National health insurance was dropped from the Democratic platform when Bill Clinton won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. What funding was appropriated for housing and education was geared more to rewarding political supporters with contracts than meeting the needs of the people.
Since the 1970s, the dominant economic policy of the Democrats, like the Republicans, has emphasized tax cuts and subsidies for the rich and big business on the theory that the benefits would trickle down to working people in the form of business expansion, new jobs, and rising wages. Trickle down economics is a proven failure. Wages have been stagnant since the early 1970s while the costs of rent, health care, college, and lately food have gone through the roof.
Over the last decade, the Green Party has been campaigning for a Green New Deal that would be the fulfillment of the original New Deal’s aspiration for an Economic Bill of Rights – with added right to a clean and sustainable environment, particularly to address the mounting climate crisis. I have run on that theme as the Green candidate for Governor of New York in 2010, 2014, and again this year. The Green New Deal was also the central theme of the Green presidential candidate in 2012 and 2016, Jill Stein.
With Trump’s reactionary racism leading the Republicans and the corporate Democratic leadership still in charge despite the progressive challenge from the Bernie Sanders wing, there is virtually no chance the federal government will enact an Economic Bill of Rights any time soon. But just as President Roosevelt began such New Deal programs as public jobs for the unemployed when he was Governor of New York, we could implement a Green New Deal for New York that would serve as an example for other states and eventually the federal government.
We already have legislation for parts of the Green New Deal. The NY Health Act would provide all medically necessary services for all New Yorkers at less cost. A progressive payroll tax and a tax on the “unearned income” of the wealthy from interest, rents, and capital gains would mean 98% of would pay less in taxes for comprehensive coverage than we now pay in taxes, premiums, co-pays, deductibles, and fees for uncovered services for spotty coverage. The NY Health Act has passed in the Assembly for four consecutive years and is just one vote short of passage in the state Senate.
The NY Off Fossil Fuels Act would commit the state to 100% clean energy by 2030. The global carbon budgets of climate science indicate that industrial states like New York must make this transition to avert runaway global warming and a climate catastrophe. But it is also a program for full employment. A 2013 study by Cornell and Stanford engineers, economists, and scientists found that 100% clean energy by 2030 was not only economically and technically feasible. It would also be a massive economic stimulus, creating 4.5 million jobs in manufacturing and construction to build the system out and cutting electric power rates in half.
An important part of the clean energy program is fixing the MTA. It needs a 10-year, $37 billion investment to modernize the existing system and get it running on time again. It needs another $62 billion to extend service the “transit desserts” of the city. I’ll address how we fund this and other Green New Deal programs below.
The state is a cumulative $4.2 billion behind in funding public schools according to the Foundation Aid Formula enacted in 2007 to satisfy the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling to fully fund all public schools to provide every child with a sound, basic education. Instead of fighting in court against lawsuits by the parents of New York City, Syracuse, and seven small upstate cities for full funding, the state should settle and fully fund our schools. For $2 billion a year, the state could provide tuition-free college educations for all CUNY and SUNY students.
The housing crisis in New York State is severe. Over half of New York renters pay more than the federal standard of affordability of 30% of income and over a quarter pay more than 50% of their income. Deregulated units and skyrocketing rents are driving the working class out of many parts of New York City. Homelessness has increased to the point where over 10% of school children in cities like New York and Syracuse are homeless. NYCHA requires 5-year, $35 billion investment to remove lead and mold and fix the boilers, elevators, and roofs. Stronger rent control laws are needed to stem the crisis in the short term. But the way to secure decent housing for all is to maintain and build sufficient public housing. Building public housing is more cost effective than subsidizing affordable units in private developments. The new public housing should be for everyone instead of isolating poor people of color in segregated projects. Building high-quality, mixed-income, human-scale, scatter-site public housing developments that are powered by clean energy will be a jobs program, a desegregation program, and a clean energy program as well as an affordable housing program.
So how do we pay for the Green New Deal? We tax the rich again. The top 1% received 12% of all income in 1980 in both New York State and New York City. Today the top 1% receives 30% of all income statewide and 41% of all income in the city. The top 1% received $375 billion in income last year, an average of $4.1 million for each of the 91,000 taxpayers in the top 1%. They can afford to pay more taxes.
The income tax rate on the growing share of income received by the top 1% has been cut in half since the 1970s. The bottom tax bracket was doubled from 2% to 4%. If New York State went back to the more progressive income tax structure it had in the 1970s, it would generate $10 billion more revenues. If the Stock Transfer Tax was retained by the state instead rebated right back to the traders on Wall Street as it has been since 1981, the state would have another $15 billion a year in revenues. If the state clawed back the Trump’s corporate income tax cut windfall, it would have another $10 billion a year. That’s $35 billion a year we can use to build a clean energy system, fix and expand public housing and mass transit, provide comprehensive health care, and fully fund our public schools and colleges.
Howie Hawkins is a recently retired Teamster in Syracuse and a former Green Party candidate for Governor of New York in 2018.