Human Rights in the United States: Beginning at Home
In recent history, the United States government and many organizations in the United States have often talked about human rights as if they were only relevant to abuses in other countries, and claims of human rights violations were leveled by, not at, the U.S. government. Although human rights documents and treaties claimed to discuss universal rights obligations that applied to all countries, the prevailing wisdom was that people in the United States did not need human rights standards or international scrutiny to protect their rights.
Yet, many Americans have always believed that the struggle for human rights is profoundly relevant to the United States. One of the earliest uses of the term “human rights” is attributed to Frederick Douglas when he referred to the fundamental rights of enslaved African-Americans at the time when the United States did not recognize their humanity or their rights. Indeed, the idea that all individuals have fundamental rights rooted in the concept of human dignity and that the international arena might provide support in domestic rights struggles has often resonated with marginalized and disenfranchised people. So it was no surprise that U.S. rights organizations, including the NAACP and the American Jewish Congress, played a crucial role in the birth of the modern human rights movement. Both groups helped to ensure that human rights were included in the UN Charter which founded the United Nations.
Despite fierce resistance from adversaries of human rights, such as avowed segregationists or more recently advocates of U.S. exceptionalism, who successfully delayed human rights advocacy within the United States for decades, there has been a growing domestic human rights movement that is committed to the long term vision of ensuring the full range of human rights for all within or at our borders. This movement - comprised of community organizers, academics and scholars, lawyers, artists, web activists, policy advocates, economists, educators and many others - is multi-issue covering the span of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. It is ambitious in its breadth and scope and audacious in its aspirations. There are many voices that still argue that rights such as health care or housing are only commodities that serve market interests. The human rights movement, however, is a platform for voices who argue, intensely and passionately, that this view cannot and must not prevail.
Economic and Social Rights in the United States: Six Rights, One Promise
The U.S. government has rarely recognized the relevance of human rights standards within the United States, or recognized that human rights obligations include obligations to protect basic economic and social rights. Few people would hesitate to condemn poor education systems, inadequate health care infrastructure, hunger, scores of families suffering from abject poverty and homelessness, wages that do not support a dignified life, and widespread economic insecurity. Nor would anyone plausibly deny that all of these are sharply evident in the United States. Yet, successive U.S. administrations have explicitly resisted the notion that every person has fundamental economic and social rights to be free from such conditions and failed to reform our legal, political, and economic system to meet people's needs and protect people from the structural inequalities that amount to a systemic assault on human dignity.
Historically, the United States played an important role in the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which embraced economic and social rights, including the right to housing, education, decent work, social security, food and health care (later expanded to the right to health more broadly within the UN system). In fact, the international economic and social rights framework was deeply influenced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” agenda, which included freedom from want. But this visionary promise represented by these six rights is long overdue. While every U.S. state recognizes a basic right to education, there are still deep inequities in education and too many children face degraded school environments that push them out of schools. (see NESRI's work with the Dignity in Schools Campaign). Health care, food, housing and access to decent work (or in the event of unemployment or disability basic social security) are still not recognized as basic rights leading to irrational and damaging policy choices that leave scores of families unable to meet their fundamental needs.
This landscape calls for revisiting why the United States has denied economic and social rights to its people, and for a change in our vision of basic rights, government responsibility and our collective commitment to meeting the fundamental needs of all.
The Call for Economic and Social Rights: A Revolution of Values
Economic and social rights are a natural, and in fact necessary, outgrowth of U.S. founding ideals of equality, freedom and human dignity. Social movement leaders have often recognized this relationship. Around the time of his launching the Poor People’s Campaign, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to this stating:
“We read one day. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.That they endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But if a man doesn’t have job or an income, he has neither life, nor liberty and the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.” —Martin Luther King, Jr. (March 1968)
Issuing a dramatic challenge, Dr. King called for a Bill of Economic Rights and recognized that:
“We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We have been in a reform movement… But after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together…you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.” —Martin Luther King, Jr. (May 1967)
Bringing economic and social rights home is a central part of putting our house in order and living up to our ideals. Neither charity nor temporary policy shifts will protect the basic dignity and equality of the ever larger number of people within the United States who are being pushed out to the margins of our increasingly harsh economy. Moreover, lack of resources is not the cause of any of these harms imposed on individuals, families and communities. Even in this economic downturn, the United States has the capacity to meet the needs of all its people. We do not really face a housing crisis. Instead, we face a policy crisis evidenced by the fact that while we have so many people without homes, we continue to allow an ever increasing number of homes to go empty without people. Irrational and unjust policy choices impact almost every economic and social rights issue facing people in the United States today. Recognizing basic economic and social rights defends both the poor and middle class against the interests that threaten access to these fundamental needs and human dignity.