The State of the Union in Perspective: Trump’s America and Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms


January 30, 2018

In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation to bring us together in support of a strong American presence in the world.  Defeating the Axis forces in concert with our allies was essential to ensure that people all over the world could enjoy four freedoms:  freedom of speech and of religion, and freedom from want and fear.
Roosevelt started with the premise that Americans did enjoy these freedoms (although we know that was not universally true).  He made the case that eventual peace depended on extending them to other nations.

Nearly four score years later, Roosevelt’s four freedoms remain important.  But we must take a hard look at ourselves, and recognize that these freedoms are eroding for Americans. President Trump bears responsibility for making things worse.

Freedom of speech is eroded when the President constantly cries “fake news,” trying to undermine an independent press.  Freedom of religion is eroded when the Trump Administration keeps trying to impose a “Muslim ban,” and when he comes to the defense of racist and anti-Semitic white supremacists.

But this piece focuses primarily on the freedoms from want and fear.  For many working Americans, securing necessities is a struggle.  The President has claimed that his enormous tax cuts will help average workers.  But don’t be fooled. An analysis of actions by Fortune 500 companies found that only 29 of them (5.8 percent) are reporting one-time bonuses, and only 17 (3.4 percent) have announced wage increases.  At the same time, the tax cut bill’s repeal of the individual mandate is expected to raise health insurance premiums 10 percent for those in the marketplaces, and 13 million people are expected to lose their health insurance.  In the past year, the number of uninsured rose by 3.2 million people, the first increase since the Affordable Care Act had been enacted, in part because the Trump Administration cut back on outreach and cut the open enrollment period in half.

By making it harder for working Americans to secure health coverage, the Trump Administration has taken us farther from the goal of freedom from want.  It has also taken a number of steps to weaken protections for workers.  Most recently, the Trump Administration is proposing to allow restaurant owners to confiscate workers’ tips, only returning to them enough to get them to the minimum wage.  Employers could thus legally steal $5.8 billion from their workers each year, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.  The National Employment Law Project and Restaurant Opportunities Center United found that more than half of wait staff and bartenders’ income comes from tips, so the Administration’s proposed rule would dramatically reduce their income.

There are lots of ways to pry income away from working families, and one of the worst is payday lending, which preys upon low-income people without other access to credit, trapping them into repeated high interest loans.  The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau proposed rules to limit the debt trap from payday lending, but the Trump Administration has placed this rule on hold.  In another example of the Administration’s goal of reining in consumer protections, CFPB Acting Director Mick Mulvaney dropped a lawsuit against four abusive online payday lenders who illegally made loans of up to 950 percent APR in at least 17 states.

Americans want the President to talk about reducing poverty in the U.S. in his State of the Union message.  In a recent poll, 78 percent of registered voters said they wanted the President to take up poverty reduction, making it the third most popular topic (improving health care was first, at 82 percent, followed by improving the economy and creating jobs, at 81 percent).  But in his first year, President Trump has taken more steps to worsen poverty than to reduce it.  Here too, don’t be fooled.  He may talk about getting people into jobs.  But his plans to allow states to change Medicaid rules to impose “work requirements” on some adults, and to make more SNAP/food stamp recipients subject to draconian three-month time limits if they don’t meet work requirements, are both backdoor ways of denying assistance to needy people.  Seeing how Kentucky would impose its new rules shows clearly the intent to deny assistance.  Kentucky’s rules changes, approved by the Trump Administration, would force Medicaid beneficiaries to document their work every month; many would be required to pay a small premium each month.  We know that frequent requirements such as these are hard for low-income workers to comply with; they are designed for that purpose.  Failure to submit required documentation can under Kentucky’s new system result in people being locked out of Medicaid coverage for six months.  The state estimates its caseload will decline by 100,000.

One of the Administration’s (and Congress’) most appalling failures is the inadequate response to the hurricane disasters affecting Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Texas, and Florida.  Puerto Rico and the USVI have received very little aid so far, and huge numbers of their populations remain without power or safe water, with health care seriously compromised.  While Louisiana’s state match for Medicaid was waived for a year, Puerto Rico has not gotten a similar waiver, and they get less help from the federal government in Medicaid payments than any state.  They are expected to run out of Medicaid funds in March.  One thousand more people died in the aftermath of the hurricane in Puerto Rico than at the same time the year before.

If we want to make progress on enabling more Americans to be free from want, we need to support working families with more affordable child care.  Ivanka Trump talked about more child care subsidies, but her version would have helped families with higher incomes.  For low-income families, increasing the number of subsidized child care placements is essential.  But from 2006 to 2015, the number of such placements has declined by 373,000, according to the National Women’s Law Center.  Will the President propose reversing this trend?  It’s hard to be optimistic.

The last of President Roosevelt’s four freedoms, freedom from fear, can take many forms. It is not unrelated to freedom from want, in that millions of people close to or in retirement fear that they will not have enough income to make ends meet, and the high cost of rent causes millions of poor people to fear eviction and homelessness.  But there is another kind of fear that President Trump has increased:  the fear of immigrants that they will be deported and separated from their families and communities.  He chose to end the legal status for the Dreamers, those brought to this country as children, most of whom remember no other home.  Now, as 122 of them lose their legal status every day, the President holds them ransom for a set of policies that will ramp up deportations of their parents and others, and slam the door on others trying to reunite with their families or escape from disastrous conditions.  The decision to end the legal status of hundreds of thousands of people from Haiti and El Salvador, who have been part of our communities for decades and have hundreds of thousands of citizen children, is inhumane and destructive to families and communities.  The President is stoking fear, not promoting freedom from it.  As a Federal District Court judge said in releasing an immigrant activist from prison, “It ought not to be – and it has never before been – that those who have lived without incident in this country for years are subjected to treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust, regimes where those who have long lived in a country may be taken without notice from streets, home and work.  And sent away.”

Fortunately, overwhelming numbers of our people reject such un-American actions.  A new poll commissioned by the National Immigration Law Center found that 70 percent of voters want legal status for the Dreamers, and 81 percent of voters in “toss-up” congressional districts do so.  A majority (59 percent) support continued legal status for people from countries like Haiti who came here to escape natural disasters or violence.

To assure our freedoms in the 21st century, we have to invest in a way that reaches everyone.  Yes, we do need to renew our infrastructure, but not by giving more tax breaks to businesses so they can turn around and charge us tolls on the roads they build.  We need to rebuild struggling communities in Puerto Rico, USVI, Houston, etc.  We need to modernize schools, and set a goal of connecting rural areas to the internet.  We need to hire low-income workers so they can share in rebuilding America.

That is going to be harder if all of these wasteful tax cuts remain in place, and if giant increases in the military swallow up billions more.

The President is expected to call for giant Pentagon increases.  That is not the path to increased security.  In 2016, Pentagon spending – not counting expenditures for the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts – was $611 billion, more than the combined military spending for the next eight countries.  Pentagon spending more than doubled from its $287 billion level in 2001.  It is reported that President Trump’s new budget will seek over $700 billion for the military.

President Trump’s priorities are bigger tax breaks for corporations and bigger budgets for the Pentagon, while slamming the door on immigrants and taking billions from low-income workers, either by legalized wage theft or reduced services.  Better to make realizing Roosevelt’s four freedoms our goals.

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