What we the people are owed
In January of 1944, shortly before his death, President Franklin Roosevelt laid out a series of programs he deemed "the second Bill of Rights." Had they been enacted, these programs would have guaranteed employment, education, housing and health care to every citizen of the United States.
Seven decades have come and gone, and the cause of Roosevelt's progressivism has been swept aside by Reaganomics and the conservative New Democrats. In that time, the word "entitlements" has turned from a rallying cry of the labor movement into a pejorative, an attack often levied at Democrats accused of government handouts.
It should come as little surprise that the richest people in the world would necessarily want to slant the world in a more individualist direction. Individually, they hold all the cards. If you pit me, or any average person, in a contest of political influence against a billionaire, there can only be one winner.
Often, the unwillingness of the top 1% to pay their fair share in taxes is presented as a kind of surface-level greed. We seem comfortable calling it merely pursuit of profit. An understandable, albeit unsavory, social ill.
But there is nothing inherently unjust about wanting money. The injustice of hoarded wealth is not that billionaires live comfortable lives, but rather that their grotesque luxury comes at the expense of ordinary people.
Every human deserves — by virtue of their humanity and nothing more —things like health care and education. There are two classes. The lower one, average people like virtually everyone reading this article, works to meet these basic needs. Our pursuit of profit is purely personal, it is not intended to give us power over someone else, but rather offer us a decent life.
In this regard, we stand in contrast to the second upper economic class. Their continued power offers them not just increased personal stature, but increased control. They use their money to bribe politicians, buy up more factories, lower tax laws, and so on.
In other words, the dividing line between regular people and the rich, is that the rich use most of their money making themselves more rich.
And who pays the price? You and me, of course.
Who hurts you more? The impoverished family on food stamps, to whom a tiny fraction of your taxes go toward offering a decent life, or the billionaire looking to gut your school's funding so they can buy another yacht?
The answer is clear. And the broader conclusion ought to be as well. We normal workers are fighting for a basic quality of life. Those at the top are fighting for more money. And those interests are diametrically opposed.
The greatest inhibition to advocating these ideals is the way people have been cowed into embarrassment over fighting for basic rights. But we can't be ashamed.
Saying "I deserve a fair wage" is nothing like someone who is already rich demanding a tax break. They are asking to steal even more. We are asking to be justly compensated for our work.
But don't mistake entitlements for blind charity. We are not giving anything away. It is our hard work, our consumption, our production or labor that made this country rich. Not alone, but together as a group. And if we are willing to stand together, we can make sure that every one of us gets the rights they deserve.
But there is one final entitlement. You are entitled to power. You and I and everyone like us deserves a fair say in the government. I don't think I'm alone in saying that I am constantly dismayed with the degree of leverage corporations hold over politicians. But it doesn't have to be like that.
The super rich want to cut entitlements because they want average people like us pitted against one another. They want to convince you that it's the starving family on welfare, or the desperate migrant children who are keeping your wages down. But it's not poor people keeping pay low and prices high. It's the people with power and an eye for profit.
So let us embrace the language of entitlements. Let us say proudly that we are all entitled to a better life. That through our hard work, working-class people have made America the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world.
Right now, all that wealth, and all that power rests in the hands of a tiny fraction of the population. But it doesn't have to be that way. If we are willing to raise our voices together, and demand the things we deserve, we can have the rights we are entitled to.
In the 1940s, Franklin Roosevelt died, and the dream of a second Bill of Rights died with him. But the lesson is not that Roosevelt's ambitions were too high. Rather, it is that they did not go far enough.
The cause of human rights is too important a thing to be invested in a single presidential candidate. It must be our mission to fight for universal programs. From the grandest international policy, to the smallest school board action, we need to operate with our common interests in mind.
If we stay silent, a handful of people will continue to hold the power. But though they have all the money, we have the numbers. We, the vast majority, are the producers, the consumers, the workers, the ordinary people who make the economy run. And if we speak up together, there is nothing we cannot achieve.
Wallace Milner is a senior at West Linn High School.
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