America in need of a ‘freedom budget’

Marge Robinson

As much of the nation uses Black History Month to reflect on the progress we have made over the past 50 years in the area of social and racial justice far too many of us fail to remember another critical component of the civil rights movement: economic justice.

We have been far less successful in that arena and deserve much less applause.

But in light of the profoundly increased income inequality we have experienced as a nation over the last several decades, it’s worth noting how prescient the architects of that pillar of the civil rights movement were when they advocated for a “freedom budget” for all Americans.

During the most intense moments of the civil rights movement when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in a quest for voting rights, hundreds of miles north his civil rights colleague Bayard Rustin, labor leader A. Philip Randolph and the economist Leon Keyserling were busy crafting the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s Freedom Budget.

When the budget was introduced in the fall of 1966 it had 11 primary goals: the abolition of poverty, guaranteed full employment, full production and high economic growth, adequate minimum wages, farm income parity, guaranteed incomes for all unable to work, a decent home for every American family, modern health services for all, full educational opportunity for all, updated social security and welfare programs, and equitable tax and money policies.

Its advocates, including King, hoped to obtain the employment objectives from massive public work and infrastructure repair programs and an increase in the minimum wage.

Sound familiar?

Although the Freedom Budget would never go anywhere in Congress it provided a progressive road map for future real budgets.

Decades later, labor leaders, advocates for the poor and politicians concerned with equity have pushed for similar economic and employment objectives that focus on empowering people and strengthening our economy by lifting people out of poverty through a livable wage, equitable tax and trade policies and access to health care for all Americans.

Rustin, Randolph and King were under no illusions when they advocated for the freedom budget.

It was a thoughtful, aspirational document that was achievable only with a change in economic priorities.

The drain of the Vietnam War and internal strife among civil rights leaders made such a goal too difficult.

As our elected leaders and political hopefuls search for a way forward, they only need look to the freedom budget as a guide. A livable wage attached to stable employment should be the foundation for good government — leading to a fair economy for us all.

Addressing other critical needs such as education and tax parity should round out that plan rather than serving as a political football.

The freedom budget and those who created it embody a rich legacy that should be honored this month.

Marge Robinson, a registered nurse, is president of SEIU Healthcare Michigan.

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