In his State of the Union address in January 1941, after his second re-election and with the country on the brink of the second world war, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of “The Four Freedoms:” Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. He extolled these as the underpinnings of the ideals of democracy, as values and aspirations worth fighting for; and how America had a mandate to propagate these through the world--
“We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. …The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.”
American painter Norman Rockwell created a series of paintings in spring of that year, inspired by Roosevelt’s speech. The Saturday Evening Post ran a special issue on “The Four Freedoms” in 1943, commissioning 4 writers to craft essays that would run alongside Norman Rockwell’s paintings: Booth Tarkington on “Freedom of Speech,” Will Durant on “Freedom of Worship,” Stephen Vincent Benet on “Freedom from Fear,” and Filipino American labor activist, writer, novelist and poet Carlos Bulosan on “Freedom from Want.”
Rockwell’s now iconic painting that goes with Bulosan’s essay depicts a white family gathered around the Thanksgiving table. The patriarch beams as his wife lowers a roasted turkey on to the table covered by a pristine white cloth and laid with fine china— it is large enough to feed all of them there, plus perhaps a dozen more people. In the foreground, a bowl overflowing with fruit speaks of abundance and even excess. Soon they will say grace, giving thanks for the gifts with which the American capitalist economy supposedly rewards those who are willing to work hard and sacrifice.
Nothing in the scene hints at the dark years of the Great Depression little more than a decade before. There was the stock market crash of 1929; millions of workers lost their jobs while corporations continued to profit. Long lines at soup kitchens and food banks included middle class citizens, even as one percent of the richest Americans could boast of owning over a third of all national assets. All of this sounds eerily familiar in our own present time.
Bulosan, a farm worker, labor activist, and immigrant, also spoke about how in his time as in ours, much of the work that goes into the American economy and translates as food on our tables is from labor of immigrant hands and bodies.
In 2019, 28.4 million foreign born or immigrant workers made up almost 18% of the entire American labor force. In Virginia alone, one in six workers is an immigrant, making up 17% of the state’s labor force in 2018. Immigrant workers in the state are in numerous fields and industries: in professional, scientific, and technology services; in health care; in construction and food services; in entrepreneurship, sales and retail, transportation, warehousing, among others.
Often maligned as lazy, weak-minded, or slow, immigrant workers in the US are described by the US Census Bureau as having the highest participation in the labor force than American-born workers.
“So long as the fruit of our labor is denied us, so long will want manifest itself in a world of slaves. It is only when we have plenty to eat — plenty of everything — that we begin to understand what freedom means. To us, freedom is not an intangible thing. When we have enough to eat, then we are healthy enough to enjoy what we eat. Then we have the time and ability to read and think and discuss things. Then we are not merely living but also becoming a creative part of life. It is only then that we become a growing part of democracy.
We do not take democracy for granted. We feel it grow in our working together — many millions of us working toward a common purpose. If it took us several decades of sacrifices to arrive at this faith, it is because it took us that long to know what part of America is ours.
Our faith has been shaken many times, and now it is put to question. Our faith is a living thing, and it can be crippled or chained. It can be killed by denying us enough food or clothing, by blasting away our personalities and keeping us in constant fear. Unless we are properly prepared, the powers of darkness will have good reason to catch us unaware and trample our lives. … We have moved down the years steadily toward the practice of democracy. We become animate in the growth of Kansas wheat or in the ring of Mississippi rain. We tremble in the strong winds of the Great Lakes. We cut timbers in Oregon just as the wild flowers blossom in Maine. We are multitudes in Pennsylvania mines, in Alaskan canneries. We are millions from Puget Sound to Florida. In violent factories, crowded tenements, teeming cities. Our numbers increase as the war revolves into years and increases hunger, disease, death, and fear.
But sometimes we wonder if we are really a part of America. We recognize the mainsprings of American democracy in our right to form unions and bargain through them collectively, our opportunity to sell our products at reasonable prices, and the privilege of our children to attend schools where they learn the truth about the world in which they live. We also recognize the forces which have been trying to falsify American history — the forces which drive many Americans to a corner of compromise with those who would distort the ideals of men that died for freedom.
Sometimes we walk across the land looking for something to hold on to. We cannot believe that the resources of this country are exhausted. Even when we see our children suffer humiliations, we cannot believe that America has no more place for us. We realize that what is wrong is not in our system of government, but in the ideals which were blasted away by a materialistic age….”
You see immigrant workers driving cabs, in construction lots, in the kitchens of restaurants, cleaning hallways in our schools and clinics, taking care of patients in nursing homes and hospitals, teaching our children in schools, loading cargo into freight cars, moving through orchards and vegetable farms to pick the fruit and produce for our tables. As they acquire more language skills and become more acculturated, immigrant workers move into jobs that require higher education or skills. Economists predict that as the nation’s workforce needs grow and change, restrictive immigration policies will be detrimental to the economy instead of encouraging its growth:
“The research cited … shows that, as important as immigrants are to today’s workforce, about one third of current immigrant workers are not authorized to work in the U.S. Our ability to meet America’s future workforce needs will depend, in no small part, on ensuring the U.S. has sound immigration policies that meet the economic needs of our nation.”
Bulosan’s essay speaks to us about how we still need to work toward freedom from want—especially as long as there are "others" who continue to feel that they do not “share the promise and fruits of American life.”