From the Freedom Budget to the People’s Budget: the Human Rights Legacy of the March on Washington

As we reflect on the March on Washington fifty years ago, we also recall the largely suppressed radical human rights vision of civil rights leaders in the years leading up to Dr. King’s assassination. The now celebrated march was officially the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” linking economic justice with racial justice and going beyond civil rights toward a unified human rights agenda that emphasized economic and social rights for all.  The sanitized history of the civil rights era often ignores the threat posed by Dr. King and others to an oppressive economic system grounded in an inequitable distribution of resources and power, then and now.

One manifestation of the movement’s positive, proactive vision of social and economic change was the Freedom Budget, a concrete plan for eradicating poverty and realizing economic and social rights within ten years.  Published by the A. Philip Randolph Institute in 1966, The “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, Budgeting our Resources, 1966-1975 To Achieve “Freedom from Want” presented a blueprint for public policies to meet people’s needs and eliminate economic want and oppression.

Its agenda resembles a task list for today’s economic and social rights advocates:

  • full employment
  • adequate incomes for all workers
  • a universal and unified system of guaranteed minimum incomes for those not employed
  • a decent home for every family
  • a universal system of health insurance
  • universal educational opportunities, with higher education at costs within each person’s means
  • conservation and replenishment of natural resources, including clean air and water, and an appropriate transportation system
  • sustained full employment linked to sustained production and economic growth


The realization of civil and political freedoms is inextricably linked to the fulfillment of these economic and social rights. As the Freedom Budget states:

“There is an absolute analogy between the crusade for civil rights and liberties and the crusade which the ‘Freedom Budget’ represents. This is because the ‘Freedom Budget’ would achieve the freedom from economic want and oppression which is the necessary complement to freedom from political and civil oppression. And just as the progress thus far made on the front of civil rights and liberties has immeasurably strengthened the entire American political democracy, so will the ‘Freedom Budget’ strengthen immeasurably our entire economic and social fabric.”

Achieving these goals is not a matter of economic or financial feasibility, but a question of values and concrete commitments: “The U. S. economy has the productive power to abolish ‘freedom from want’ by 1975 […] if we care enough about doing it. The real issue is neither economic nor financial, but moral.” However, as we now know, the pioneering struggles of the civil rights era were ultimately stifled by the powers that be, and public policy on economic justice did not move much beyond token commitments and rhetoric. The Freedom Budget was explicit about the actions needed to effect change:

“A war against want cannot be won with declarations of intent. It cannot be won with token or inadequate programs which identify areas of need, but apply policies and programs which only scratch the surface. It demands specific quantitative goals, fully responsive to the need, and commitment to their attainment.”

The Freedom Budget put forward such an assessment of people’s needs, along with concrete goals and financial allocations responding to those needs. It offered a “specific consideration of our great priorities of needs. We must remember always that we cannot serve these by glowing declarations of intent; we must quantify the magnitudes of the various needs, prove that we have the capabilities to meet them, and allocate sufficient portions of our great and growing resources to them. This, again, is the essential meaning of the ‘Freedom Budget’.”

A review of this history, aided by a new article and book, elucidates the parallels between the Freedom Budget and our vision for a People’s Budget today. The People’s Budget, showcased in a NESRI-produced short animated film, requires public policies to be grounded in human rights principles and to start with an assessment of people’s needs. The goal of satisfying needs and rights then leads to concrete government obligations for providing essential public goods, ensuring work with dignity and guaranteeing income security, thus advancing universal well-being and equity. The People’s Budget builds on the Freedom Budget by turning it into a sustainable approach and paradigm shift in the way we develop budget and revenue policy at all levels of government (rather than a one-off plan to change federal policy). As a tool for radical, rights-based change, it may help guide new movements for human rights.