“O, let America be America again,
The land that never has been yet
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine – the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro, ME-
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain
Must bring back our mighty dream again…
…Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers,
The mountains and the endless plain-
All, all the strength of these great green states-
And make America again!”
from Langston Hughes, Let America be America Again (1936)
Last week the Kairos Center held a Survival Summit on food justice, the first in a series of strategic dialogues we will be organizing over the next several months. Each summit will take up a key economic issue confronting poor and low-income people: hunger, homelessness, a shredded social safety net and the denial of health care. For this inaugural meeting, we brought together grassroots organizers, faith leaders, artists and cultural workers, researchers and policy experts to share how the terrain around food justice has changed over the past 18 months, including new opportunities, breakthroughs and challenges, and how to coordinate our efforts towards building the power and organization of the poor, so as to realize and meet all of our needs.
In the weeks ahead, we will share more of the analysis and insights from this first summit. In the meantime, watch the panel discussion between Raj Patel, a renowned public intellectual and author of Inflamed and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, with Alison Cohen (WhyHunger), Keith Bullard (Raise Up NC!), Lu Aya (the Peace Poets) and Maureen Taylor (Michigan Welfare Rights Organization), moderated by Dawn Plummer (Pittsburgh Food Policy Council.)
This month’s policy briefing focuses on the infrastructure bill, budget resolution and comparisons between the Build Back Better agenda and the New Deal. While the gains to be made are significant, there is much more that needs to be done, to bring us out of the rack and ruin of the pandemic and decades of immoral, unjust policies that brought us to this point. This is both the challenge and opportunity of our “kairos” moment, a break in the continuity of time which offers a chance to change the very direction of our society.
To truly make ending poverty a theory of change, as President Biden promised the Poor People’s Campaign, our government cannot be held back by the fear of threatening corporate profits or the wealth of a few, nor can it merely set the floor for a minimum standard of living. Instead, it must advance health care, housing, water, welfare and democracy as public goods and human rights. This means wresting away the private sector’s control over whose needs are met based on their ability to pay for them; being dissatisfied with charitable or philanthropic measures to meet the gaps in between; and re-establishing a new foundation of governance from which to reconstruct the life of the nation.
On Labor Day weekend, some 9 million people lost their pandemic unemployment benefits. This was the largest cutoff of unemployment benefits in our nation’s history and they were implemented even though there are 18.7 million workers who are still hurting from last year’s economic downturn. Just days before, the Supreme Court ended the eviction moratorium, without any relief for past due housing payments, putting up to 17 million people at risk of homelessness. Families with school-aged children are living on the precarious edge of managing caregiving, work and 18 months of fatigue. Hospitalizations are rising, multiple hurricanes have battered and flooded our coastline, drought and fires are raging in the west and tornadoes are traveling overland and up the coast. In the midst of this despair and uncertainty, it is no surprise that more people are feeling depressed and anxious.
The Biden Administration is working hard to address these conditions through the Build Back Better (BBB) agenda. This is a turn from the forty-year old idea that “government is the problem. The BBB agenda is an encouraging step towards realizing President Biden’s promise to “make ending poverty a theory of change” by expanding the role of government and showing how it can be an active agent in helping everyone live full and dignified lives.
In fact, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent Supplemental Poverty Measure report, government programs like social security, stimulus payments, expanded unemployment insurance, SNAP (food stamps) and refundable tax credits have kept millions of people from falling below the poverty threshold in 2020. The impact of the stimulus payments and unemployment insurance are especially telling: (1) the stimulus payments alone, which were new in 2020, kept 11.7 million people above the poverty threshold; and (2) unemployment insurance, which was greatly expanded during the pandemic, was more than ten times more effective than it had been in 2019. (Both of these programs were, however, temporary, and have now expired).
The Census report also shows a drop in the broader population of poor and low-income people i.e., people living below the poverty threshold as well as one emergency above it, otherwise known as the “140 million.” From 140 million in 2018, this number is down to approximately 118 million in 2020. Notwithstanding a significant nonresponse bias in the data, especially among low-income households, it is clear that government programs can mitigate poverty and economic insecurity. (The graph below shows how hunger dropped when payments went out and rose when they were depleted.) The Urban Institute projected that without these programs, the percentage of poor and low-income people in the country would have grown to well over 150 million (47.7%) in 2021.
The lesson we should take from all of this is how much we can accomplish with new and expanded government programs, especially given the economic insecurity that millions of people are still facing. This is not only the moral thing to do. It is a political necessity. As Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said about the SNAP expansion, “We may have a Constitution and a Declaration of Independence, but if we had 42 million Americans who were going hungry, really hungry, they wouldn’t be happy and there would be political instability.”
The New Deal and Building Back Better
As Congress is negotiating the $3.5 trillion budget resolution and other legislation on infrastructure, voting rights and women’s health, it is instructive to look at another period in our history when the role of government was fundamentally changed.
In the early 20th century, the U.S. faced a global pandemic, historic wealth inequality, rampant racism, a world war and the rise of fascism. Amid massive economic dislocation, widespread hunger and homelessness, those at the forefront of these crises began organizing across the country: veterans brought their families to the nation’s capitol to demand their wartime bonuses; tenant farmers and sharecroppers who lost their livelihoods created the Southern Tenant Farmers Union; workers and laborers organized hunger marches, formed unemployed councils to build up their power and joined others to fight effectively against evictions. Dynamic political formations, including Communist and Socialist party organizations, prompted questions about our government’s ability to meet the challenges of the times. This is when Langston Hughes wrote his poem, “Let America be America Again,” which was part of a broad cultural front that expressed the pain, hope and resistance of the times into art, song, literature, poetry and theatre.
The Roosevelt Administration’s response was the New Deal, which created new government programs and agencies and restructured the relationship of the government to the people it governed. It both offered a substantive response to the conditions at hand and created a new national state to reestablish political order and economic stability. As historian Ira Katznelson writes in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, “The New Deal showed that liberal democracy, a political system with a legislature at its heart, could govern effectively in the face of great dangers. It crafted not just a new set of policies, but new forms of institutional meaning, language and possibility for a model that had been invented 150 years before…” The credibility of the New Deal depended “on the degree to which [it] could innovate to solve the major problems of the day….to be persuasive, they had to be seen as inventing genuine answers to pressing [social and economic] questions.”
The moment we are in requires even greater ambition. The coronavirus exposed the failures and unsustainability of the neoliberal model, which has placed profit-making at the center of every aspect of life and development. Forty years of neoliberal policies have cut taxes, deregulated banking and financial markets, privatized public utilities, undercut labor organizing, while at the same time militarizing our society, shredding our social safety net and dismantling our voting rights. These policies have left us more vulnerable and fragile to crisis, with millions unable to feed, clothe and house themselves or access health care in a pandemic. These policies have turned against and undermined democracy.
In an apparent turn from the profit-driven logic of neoliberalism, during the pandemic government resources went into payments and programs that prioritized poor and low-income people. As historian Adam Tooze recently wrote, we saw how “prompt and decisive government economic policy could prevent the collapse and forestall unnecessary unemployment, waste and social suffering. These interventions could not but appear as harbingers of a new regime beyond neoliberalism.”
This is what is encouraging comparisons between this moment and the New Deal. There are, however, significant differences between the two: “The old New Deal was a massive experimental program in a mixed economy and national development,” writes John Terese, and “the Roosevelt administration did not just throw money at their problems; they invested in long-term public services, the electrification of rural areas, the building of dams, roads, bridges and other infrastructure. In its most ambitious moments, public money was spent to build public goods with very little private sector involvement. This kind of remaking of the economy for the public good has been so far completely absent from the policy toolkit of the crisis fighters.”
In other words, the structural weaknesses wrought by neoliberalism still exist and, in many cases, have become worse. Whereas the New Deal “shook financiers to their core,” the commanding heights of our economic era have greatly benefited from the pandemic. Billionaire wealth is at an historic high. The real estate and financial sectors have been unleashed by the Supreme Court to go after households that have no ability to pay their housing and rental debt that has been mounting for months. Health companies and private investors have their sights set on some 800 rural hospitals that are at risk of closure, ready to shut them down and claim their winnings. Fossil fuel companies will continue to see tax breaks and subsidies, despite the existential threat they pose to the planet. Likewise, the assault on voting rights continues unabated by Congressional or executive action, and police killings are on track to be as high as in previous years, despite the massive uprisings in 2020.
Let America be America Again
These are significant structural roadblocks, but there is still an opportunity to see a true Third Reconstruction emerging out of these conditions. To get there will take all of what is included in the $3.5 trillion budget resolution and much more. According to the Sierra Club, we need at least $10 trillion over the next 10 years just for our infrastructure, let alone our social welfare programs, public health or schools. All of this is well within the wealth that currently exists and the resources that can be raised. Indeed, $3.5 trillion is a mere 1.2% of what our economy will produce over the next ten years [approximately $287 trillion over the next ten years]. In fact, over the past two decades, we have spent $21 trillion for war, prisons and policing. If we can determine that our national priorities are to make sure everyone is adequately fed, housed, healthy, educated, networked and safe, then we can raise the resources to move in this direction.
While there are elements of this in the infrastructure framework and budget resolution, both must be deepened and expanded. The broad direction of these policies should:
- Return and restore public ownership, control and accountability over public goods. This includes building up public capacity and infrastructure for utilities, health care, housing, caregiving and education and more, so as to prevent the privatization of public resources, entities and functions, and even our military.
- Use grants, not loans, to finance projects that build up thriving communities.
- Lift the crushing load of household, student and medical debt, without lining the pockets of the institutions that hold these debts.
- Redesign the social welfare system to redress the cruelty of an economy where one, two or even three jobs are not enough to keep the lights on, water running and food on the table: living wages, guaranteed adequate incomes, paid leave and access to health care, housing, clean water and nutritious food must be made available to everyone, without work requirements or onerous bureaucratic indignities.
- End the decades-long spending spree on militarism. Move resources to social welfare programs, jobs and climate resilience for real national security and global peace.
- Tax the rich, including raising tax rates on both income and wealth.
- Secure our democracy. If we do not quell the storm of voter suppression laws and guarantee the broadest participation possible in electoral politics for 2022, 2024 and beyond, we will lose the opportunity to “build back better” for generations to come.
Moving our society in this direction is not only a question of policy, but power. As soon as the New Deal stabilized the economic and political crises of the 1920s and 1930s, it both incorporated and co-opted the new vision of the country that was emerging from those who were at the center of those crises. The lessons from that era remind us that however well-intentioned the policies from the top may be, they will never go as far as necessary to repair and rebuild from the bottom up. To climb out of the rack and ruin of neoliberalism, we need a movement that can amass the power to compel our government to see a Third Reconstruction all the way through. Those who have been confronting the immoral policies of the past decades and organizing against their injustices must be at its forefront, because they know how far we must go to transform this country to be of, for and by the people, not the corporate, financial or political elite.
This is the America that has yet to be.