The strategy of seeking what government can do that is good for everyone in the society, but which will also particularly benefit those who need help most, was the strategy behind A. Philip Randolph’s
in the 1960s—the idea of a budget that would seek to finance progress toward social justice out of the resources of a growing economy and contribute to the further growth of that economy in its turn, a budget which Randolph argued could eliminate poverty in America within a decade. In calling for a Freedom Budget for the 21st century—a budget for the poor, the working class, and the middle class—I am seeking to build on this tradition.
Although I support the principle of reparations for the descendants of American slaves—and I specifically support HR 40 with its call to begin to study the issue—in terms of how best to advance the interests of the African American community, my own emphasis is instead on the struggle for a new Freedom Budget. I believe it will be much easier to get the American people as a whole to focus on the ongoing injustice of racial economic inequality by stressing the evidence of the great gulf in wealth between the median net worth of white and black households ($144,200 versus $11,200 in 2013) rather than the evils of slavery and Jim Crow that led to this inequality. And I believe it will be much easier to persuade the American people to help by supporting a Freedom Budget that more obviously helps the country as a whole by seeking to contribute to a widely shared economic growth while eliminating poverty.
There has been some decline in the poverty rate among African Americans from 31.1% in 1976 to 24.1% in 2015. But the incidence of poverty remains horrific. A program to eliminate poverty would not only benefit the African American community, it would also benefit the poor of every ethnicity, including the poor whites who constitute the majority of our country’s poor people. By helping water the tree of economic growth at its roots, instead of its top leaves, it would contribute to further growth in the economy as a whole.
The first step to building a consensus behind a new Freedom Budget is building a consensus around the ability and need for government intervention in the economy to restore vigorous economic growth. Like the social democratic economist Jeffrey Sachs in his recent book,
Building the New American Economy, I favor massive public investment in our nation’s infrastructure—including investment in a program to “decarbonize” our economy. Such investment will increase productivity by reducing the delays caused by poor infrastructure and at the same time move us toward full employment by creating millions of new jobs. As the economy grows, and the rich are forced to pay their fair share of the nation’s taxes by the restoration of Eisenhower era tax rates, the additional public resources that are raised can be used both to help pay for the infrastructure investment and to invest in human beings through programs to eliminate poverty, particularly with investments in education, housing, and the provision of safe and affordable banking services.
I urge you to look at the original Freedom Budget, which Martin Luther King, Jr. described in his introduction as “a moral commitment to the fundamental principles on which this nation was founded.” It represents a path not taken whose time will come again if we struggle to make it so. It remains the course we should embark upon if we are to be true to the promise of the American Revolution.