Economic Opportunity, Ending Homelessness, and Freedom from Want

This year, Four Freedoms Park has been celebrating the 75th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's pivotal Four Freedoms speech, for which this memorial is named. This blog post is the fourth in a four-part series celebrating each of these four freedoms in a modern context.

When President Roosevelt took office in 1932, the United States was suffering from the Great Depression. At least one-quarter of the workforce was unemployed (in some cities the unemployment rate reached 80-90 percent). Over his first eight years as president, FDR created the New Deal -- projects and programs to try to stabilize the economy, provide jobs, and relieve the poverty and suffering of the American people.

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished ... The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

Roosevelt promised direct, vigorous action and he delivered. FDR encouraged Congress to end prohibition and his administration passed banking reform, work relief, and agriculture programs. He created the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide jobs for unemployed people; these agencies built post offices, school, bridges, highways, and parks (many of which still exist today). The New Deal introduced Social Security, minimum wage, pensions, unemployment insurance, stock market regulation, and federal deposit insurance for banks.

While the New Deal programs provided short-term support for people, they also established coalitions between people who hadn’t previously shared common ground, and in the long term they set a precedent for social safety net programs run by the federal government.

The famous architect Louis I. Kahn (who designed Four Freedoms Park) credited FDR’s New Deal programs for enabling him to support his family during the early years of his architecture practice.

11 months before the United States entered World War II (which stimulated the economy and effectively ended the Great Depression), FDR delivered his eighth inaugural address. This speech, now known as the Four Freedoms Speech, brought together his most important values and identified four fundamental freedoms for everyone in the world: freedom of expression, freedom from fear, freedom of worship, and freedom from want. 

The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

  • Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
  • Jobs for those who can work.
  • Security for those who need it.
  • The ending of special privilege for the few.
  • The preservation of civil liberties for all.

Freedom from want is crucial to the vision that FDR laid out for us. Not only did FDR believe that dictators like Hitler and Mussolini rose to power because people in their countries were out of work and desperate, but he also believed that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”

In the 75 years since FDR’s speech, the New Deal programs and his legacy have helped many people experience individual freedom. Today, many Americans have achieved living standards far beyond what people experienced during the Great Depression. However, there are still many Americans who don’t have basic economic security -- who are living in poverty, without economic opportunities, without enough food to eat or a roof above their heads. Some of these people are struggling with unemployment, while others are working jobs that don’t pay enough (because of the gap between minimum wage and cost of living).

In fact, in recent years, homelessness in New York City has reached its highest levels since the Great Depression. More than 61,000 people (almost 24,000 kids) stay in shelters in New York City each night. The primary cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. In 2013, 236,000 New Yorkers spent more than 70 percent of their income on rent (spending 25-30 percent of income on rent is widely believed to be an affordable amount).

In many cities around the country, there are more people who want to live in the city than there is available housing. That gap between demand and supply of housing causes the price of homes, rents, and land to go up. While there’s a residential construction boom happening in cities such as New York, Dallas, and Seattle, it’s still not enough to meet the demand or lower prices. The housing affordability gap has widened significantly in New York City over the past decades.

In 2015, the Urban Institute estimates that nationally “more than a million new households were created, but only 620,000 new housing units were completed, creating a shortage of just over 430,000 units.” The Institute estimates that trend will continue for at least the next few years.

Rising housing prices are unfortunate and inconvenient for many of us, but for people in poverty this can be life-threatening if paying for rent is the tradeoff for food or medicine -- or even worse, if it causes them to lose their homes altogether. And while it may seem obvious, the best solution to homelessness is providing people experiencing homelessness with permanent housing as quickly as possible and following up with voluntary support services. This “housing first” approach is less expensive than shelter and other institutional care. It was developed in New York City, and has been replicated nationwide. Utah has reduced homelessness by 91 percent in the past decade using this approach. Houston has reduced homelessness by 75 percent in the past five years. Seattle officials are examining these results as they consider solutions; the number of homeless people in that city has increased 84 percent since 2011.

Architecture has the power to bring people together by creating public spaces like parks and creating diverse communities with affordable and mixed-income housing. But it can also be used by private interests to keep people apart through exclusive, expensive buildings and neighborhoods. To embrace FDR’s vision for a peaceful, just world, we must embrace the former and continue to advocate for affordable housing and solutions to homelessness and poverty.

During the Great Depression, FDR inspired our country to come together and help our neighbors. The number of Americans who are “ill-housed” is smaller now than it was during FDR’s time (500,000 in 2016, compared to 2 million in 1933). However, 500,000 is still too many of our fellow Americans without economic security. Roosevelt created a lasting legacy that strengthened our country and created an important social safety net for all Americans. We must not let that net unravel; we must rededicate ourselves to the Four Freedoms and uphold justice and liberty for all.

As FDR said, "We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon." Let’s create that better world together.