Skip to main content
Economic Bill of Rights

Today is the 230th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. In 1791, the founding generation corrected the glaring absence from the new US Constitution of a declaration of individual rights. The omission was so obvious to George Mason, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention who in June 1776 had written the seminal Virginian Declaration of Rights, that he told that assembly he would “sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.” He complained that the proposed Constitution did not include a bill of rights, or a “declaration of any kind” for preserving liberty of the press, trial by jury in civil cases, or against “the danger of standing armies in time of peace.”

James Madison corrected the mistake. As a representative to the First Congress, Madison drafted the Bill of Rights, which the House and the Senate approved in September 1789. The states ratified the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791. In the long struggle against tyrannical, authoritarian and overreaching governments, the Bill of Rights is surely an historic accomplishment and deserves to be celebrated today and every day.

At the March on Washington in August 1963 and continuing for the rest of his life, Dr. King called for an Economic Bill of Rights.

But in our own times, we need to ask whether the 230-year-old Bill of Rights is sufficient. Dr Martin Luther King Jr didn't think so. At the March on Washington in August 1963 and continuing for the rest of his life, Dr. King called for an Economic Bill of Rights. In 1968, the Poor People's Campaign he founded outlined the economic rights the people deserved. 

Stephen Rohde

Not long after Dr. King's assassination on April 4, 1968, the Committee of 100 presented the following version of the Economic Bill of Rights to President Johnson and Congress:

  1. A meaningful job at a living wage for every employable citizen.
  2. A secure and adequate income for all who cannot find jobs or for whom employment is inappropriate.
  3. Access to land as a means to income and livelihood.
  4. Access to capital as a means of full participation in the economic life of America.
  5. Recognition by law of the right of people affected by government programs to play a truly significant role in determining how they are designed and carried out.

On June 5th, 1968, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin published in the New York Times a version that focused on specific immediate legislative goals rather than broad principles:

  • Recommit to the Full Employment Act of 1946 and legislate the immediate creation of at least one million socially useful career jobs in public service;
  • Adopt the pending Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968;
  • Repeal the 90th Congress's punitive welfare restrictions in the 1967 Social Security Act;
  • Extend to all farm workers the right — guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act — to organize agricultural labor unions;
  • Restore budget cuts for bilingual education, Head Start, summer jobs, Economic Opportunity Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Acts.
Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

In 1968, the Poor People's Campaign augmented the 1968 demands.

1. 1968 “A meaningful job at a living wage”

2018 we have levels of unemployment; rising gap between top and bottom salary; triumph of the 1% and shareholder value, massive military spending. WE WANT Citizen’s Income; public investment in infrastructure, public services and jobs; more of the green jobs economy; more of the co-op economy.

2. 1968 “A secure and adequate income” for all those unable to find or do a job

2018 we have inadequate taxation to support social welfare/safety net; WE WANT a properly funded social security system and / or meaningful alternatives to work for those who cannot work.

3. 1968 “Access to land” for economic uses:

2018 WE WANT land reform to challenge the domination of globalised agribusiness; increased respect for and investment in small and medium sized farmers around the world.

4. 1968 “Access to capital” for poor people and minorities to promote their own businesses:

2018 the banking catastrophe meant banks were bailed yet very little was re-directed back into the economy. WE WANT stringent regulation of banking; due process to be implemented for those culpable in the crash; more mutuals and co-op financing.

5. 1968 “Ability for ordinary people to “play a truly significant role” in the government”

2018 WE CALL UPON THE ‘EVERYDAY CITIZEN’, young and old alike, opt in – stand for office – in order to secure support (taxes and legislation) for health, education, housing, reform and regulation of banks, corps etc.

6. 2018 WE ADD: CLIMATE CHANGE & ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY– increased investment in mitigation; green economy and renewable; due process for climate crimes.

7. 2018 WE ADD: REVERSE THE POWER OF TNCs (Transnational Corporations): See the People’s Treaty on challenging corporate power within a legal framework. “It is a time for a legally binding instrument to control transnational corporations with respect to human rights. A treaty that also gives victims of corporate abuses access to justice where there is none and challenges the economic and political power of TNCs’ Lucia Ortiz, Friends of the Earth International.

8. 2018 WE ADD: END ‘THE WAR ON DRUGS’ – redirect government funds into pro poor polices; capture revenue in same way as alcohol and tobacco; put an end to the ‘Prison Industrial Complex’

9. 2018 WE ADD: REPLACE GLOBAL AID PARADIGM with economic & environmental justice. For every $ that goes in aid to developing nations, $10 is returned back to global north. Northern governments & institutions must admit and act upon the fact that the north owes the south in economic terms.

10. 2018 WE ADD : WAR SPENDING/INTL RELATIONS: We want massive reductions in military spending, just as Dr King advocated. Militarization was the third of his ‘triple evils’ – poverty, racism and militarism. Real security threats to be addressed: climate change, poverty, food sovereignty.