Economic and Social Rights

What are Economic and Social Rights?

Human rights are based on principles of dignity and freedom. Both are severely compromised when human beings cannot meet their fundamental needs. Economic and social rights guarantee that every person be afforded conditions under which they are able to meet their needs. In particular, economic and social rights include:


The Right to Education enabling all persons to participate effectively in a free society and is directed to the full development of the human personality.  Learn more »


The Right to Food guaranteeing freedom from hunger and access to safe and nutritious food. Learn more »


 The Right to Health ensuring the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health including access to care, nutrition, and clean water and air. Learn more » 


  The Right to Housing ensuring access to a safe, secure, habitable, and affordable home with freedom from forced eviction. Learn more »


 The Right to Social Security guaranteeing that everyone regardless of age or ability to work has the means necessary to procure basic needs and services. Learn more » 


The Right to Work guaranteeing the opportunity to have fulfilling and dignified work under safe and healthy conditions with fair wages affording a decent living for oneself and one's family. It also provides for freedom from unemployment and the right to organize. Learn more »


Where are Economic and Social Rights Protected?

Economic and social rights are protected under a wide range of international and regional instruments including declarations and covenants. Human rights declarations represent a commitment by signatory countries to meet stated human rights standards. Covenants, also known as treaties or conventions, are international law agreements entered into by governments. Once covenants or treaties are ratified they become part of domestic law.

Declarations and covenants that protect economic and social rights include:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
The Convention on the Rights of the Child
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
The American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man


What Obligations do Governments have under Economic and Social Rights Standards?

Respect: Governments must respect human rights, meaning that a government cannot interfere with a person exercising their human rights. For example, a government violates the obligation to respect human rights when school officials expel a student from a public school on arbitrary grounds, such as pregnancy or homelessness, or when a government policy prohibits access to needed medical services or drugs, such as birth control, or when a government engages in mass evictions of public housing residents in the interests of “development” without securing adequate alternative housing for those residents. In all these instances, government actions prevented individuals from exercising human rights (education, health, housing).

Protect: Governments must protect human rights. When private actors (that is, a person or business or institution that is not part of the government) impair the exercise of human rights, the government must step in to protect those rights. For example, if factories are imposing sweatshop conditions on employees that violate the right to work for adequate pay and under reasonable conditions, the government is obligated to step in and protect the right to work.

Fulfill: Governments must fulfill human rights. What this means is that the government must create the conditions that allow all people to exercise their human rights. For example, everyone has the right to receive medical care.  Yet, many people in this country cannot afford health insurance (and do not qualify for Medicaid). Over 50 million people are in this situation. The government is obligated to create conditions that make health care accessible regardless of payment, for example through providing a publicly financed and administered insurance program that guarantees universal, equal high quality care. By maintaining the link between payment and access to care, the U.S. government has failed to meet its obligation to fulfill the right to receive health care.



Principles that Apply to Government Obligations


Under International law, governments must “progressively implement” economic and social rights. What does this mean? It means that the government is not expected to fulfill all these rights immediately and at the same time. But it must make progress in fulfilling these rights until they are completely guaranteed. So if the government takes no action to ensure economic and social rights, then it has not met its obligation. For example, if public schools in poor neighborhoods are not providing children with an adequate education and the government does not continuously take steps to improve those schools, the government is failing to meet its obligation. At the same time, if the government actually weakens protections for economic and social rights – for instance dismantling entitlements or tearing down public housing without providing equivalent or improved alternatives – it is a regression and a clear violation.


Under international law, there is a minimum that the government must meet for each economic and social right. So even if the government is not obligated to fulfill all these rights completely and immediately, it cannot allow conditions to fall below a certain level of protection for these human rights. Hunger and absolute homelessness violate this minimum. So while the government is afforded some time to ensure adequate housing for all, it must immediately address extreme situations such as lack of any shelter.


The government is required to monitor whether economic human rights are protected. For example, when the government was monitoring how many people were leaving the welfare rolls, but not monitoring the impact of welfare reform on the economic security and well-being of those families, it failed to meet its obligation to monitor the right to social security (the right to social security includes resources to maintain an adequate standard of living in the case of extended unemployment).


No matter what level of protection a government is giving human rights, it must do so without any discrimination. Discrimination includes both purposeful acts that are discriminatory, and situations where particular groups are especially and disproportionately affected. Where discrimination exists, the government must redress it immediately.


Finally, the government is both responsible for its conduct (i.e. what it does) and any results from government action or inaction. For example, if educational policies are put in place to improve education, but actually result in poorer educational outcomes for poor children, the government is held accountable under human rights standards for that result.


What Commitments has the US made under International Law to ensure Economic and Social Rights? 

The United States, as one of the primary drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was one of the first countries to commit to protecting economic and social rights under the human rights framework. Since then, the United States has been recalcitrant in meeting its promise to the people within its own borders. The United States has signed but not ratified both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. By signing these treaties, the United States has at a minimum agreed not to violate the spirit and purpose of the treaties, but it has failed to fully commit to the human rights standards they contain. The United States has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which prohibits discrimination in economic and social fields, but does not guarantee economic and social rights.

By virtue of its membership in the Organization of American States, the United States is bound under regional law to the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, which fully protects economic and social rights. Yet, despite rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights finding that the Declaration is binding on all member states, the United States consistently rejects this position and claims it is not legally bound to uphold the Declaration.