Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a national figure who has used her platform to promote bold policies on the climate crisis and healthcare, unveiled Wednesday a package of six economic justice bills to tackle American poverty and inequality.
The New York Democrat's "A Just Society" package—which includes provisions that aim to expand the rights of tenants, workers, immigrants, and formerly incarcerated individuals—won praise from anti-poverty advocates such as Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym, vice chair of Local Progress, a national network of progressive elected officials serving in local governments.
"We are winning real victories in our local governments, like our eviction defense fund here in Philadelphia and right to counsel. But we can't do it alone. We need a transformative federal policy with the money to back it up, and that's why we applaud Rep. Ocasio-Cortez's 'Just Society' plan," said Gym. "It's a visionary plan that makes moral and economic sense, and most importantly, is informed by what's moving in communities all around the nation."
We’re rolling out our next major project: A Just Society.
It’s a 6-piece suite:
1. Recognizing Poverty Act
2. Place to Prosper Act
3. Mercy in Re-Entry Act
4. Embrace Act
5. Uplift Our Workers Act
6. Ratify the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, & Cultural Rights
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) September 25, 2019
Similar to how Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal resolution, which calls for a just transition to 100 percent renewable energy, "looked to Franklin D. Roosevelt's signature initiative, 'A Just Society' echoes Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society," reported The New York Times.
"With the Green New Deal, we weren't just talking about climate change; we're talking about the systems that got us to climate change... We're addressing root causes," the congresswoman told the Times. "And similarly, with our Just Society package, we're not simply addressing poverty or wages. We're addressing some of the basic structural reasons that are resulting in those outcomes."
"I am both energized and humbled to introduce legislation today to build upon the most transformative programs of the last century," Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement Wednesday. "From the New Deal to the Great Society, we have shown time and again that our nation is capable of implementing big ideas and bold solutions that match the scale of the challenges we face.
"We must once again recognize the breadth and consequences of poverty in this country," she added, "and work together to ensure a path forward to economic freedom for everyone."
The package's six proposals designed to improve the lives of the nearly 40 million Americans in poverty, as detailed on Ocasio-Cortez's House website, are:
- The Recognizing Poverty Act, which would direct "the Department of Health and Human Services, in collaboration with the Bureau of Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics, to adjust the federal poverty line to account for geographic cost variation, costs related to health insurance, work expenses for the family, childcare needs, and new necessities, like internet access."
- The Place to Prosper Act, which would set a three percent national cap on rent increases, impose eviction restrictions on landlord, and authorize the secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) "to make grants to state and local governments to establish a right to counsel for tenants in eviction proceedings," among other provisions.
- The Embrace Act, which would ensure "that all persons in need are eligible for the largest programs of the social safety net, regardless of their immigration status."
- The Mercy in Re-Entry Act, which would similarly ensure access to safety net programs for those in need, "regardless of prior involvement with the criminal justice system."
- The Uplift Our Workers Act, which would direct "the Department of Labor, in collaboration with the office of Management and Budget, to create a 'worker-friendly score' for federal contracts" that weighs factors such as paid-family leave, scheduling predictability, a $15 minimum wage, and union membership.
- The Ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)—a multilateral treaty that champions various rights such as the right to work under just conditions, an adequate standard of living, health, and education—which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966 and is currently backed by 170 countries around the world.
Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, welcomed the first measure as "an updated, comprehensive, research-based poverty measurement framework that reflects the changing nature of basic needs and people's lived experiences."
Too many people are forced to lay their foundation on shaky ground. A stable, safe and affordable home helps to establish a prosperous life and a thriving community.
— Dave Pringle (@davepringus) September 25, 2019
The Center for Popular Democracy's co-executive director Jennifer Epps-Addison, meanwhile, celebrated Ocasio-Cortez's housing measure—declaring that "too many people are without a home, and too many of us are living every second terrified that we'll lose the struggle to keep a roof over our heads."
"Through deep investment in affordable housing, tenant protections like rent control, and reining in corporate landlords, this bill builds toward an economically, socially, and civically healthy country," said Epps-Addison—whose group shared reactions to the package from people who could be impacted by the housing proposal.
Ely Frankley, a member of the Arkansas Community Organization, said:
I am a renter in Arkansas and have been harassed and threatened with eviction by my landlord. Many of my neighbors are having problems with mold and unsafe conditions in their apartments... In a just society, we should all have access to safe and healthy housing. And when we do not, we should be able to speak up and organize without facing the threat of eviction and losing our homes. We should live in a country where we all can thrive and realize our full potential.
Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment member Sasha Graham said:
After receiving a 200 percent rent increase followed by a no-cause eviction, my son and I became homeless for three years. No one should ever have to go through the pain that what we went through. It is inhumane as a society that we allow landlords to throw families onto the streets all for the sake of profit... AOC's bill moves towards a just society by putting the power back in the hands of tenants by improving the quality of housing stock, reining in corporate landlords, and ensuring that housing is available for those in need.
Jackie Vimo, a policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, praised the Embrace Act as "an important measure to ensure that we are a country that welcomes our immigrant family members and neighbors working to build a better life, not one that is rigged in favor of the wealthy."
Although the package garnered widespread praise, some political observers such as Washington Post reporter Jeff Stein highlighted the limits of Ocasio-Cortez's proposals. For example, as Stein noted on Twitter, the labor measure appears to only apply to federal contractors.
Re: @AOC / The Squad's "Just Society" plans -
The housing (rent control!) and immigration (federal benefits to immigrants!) provisions appear hugely consequential.
But if I'm reading it correctly their labor provisions just apply to federal contractors? pic.twitter.com/rBxYBIqITG
— Jeff Stein (@JStein_WaPo) September 25, 2019
Despite the package's limitations, in terms of the current conditions in Washington, D.C.—with President Donald Trump in the White House, Republicans in control of the Senate, and House Democrats now focused on an impeachment probe—the congresswoman's proposals are politically ambitious and unlikely to advance during this administration.
Ocasio-Cortez, in her interview with the Times, did not shy way from the barriers her bills face. "I don't think there's any shortage of obstacles that we have ahead of us, but I don't think that we not do things just because they're hard," she said. "In fact, sometimes the hard things to do are the most worthwhile."
"I think one of the things that, that we can get done is build popular support in acknowledging how bad the problem already is. In doing so, we can actually begin to fundamentally address those problems," she told NPR. "If we can acknowledge how many Americans are actually in poverty, I think that we can start to address some of the more systemic issues in our economy."