Who's Afraid of Economic Rights?


Demonstrators march on the National Mall as part of the Poor People’s Campaign on June 19, 1968.

Photo by Arnold Sachs/AFP/Getty Images

Is an adequate living a human right? It is, and many in the U.S. are stepping up to claim it.

In 1948, before the ink was dry on the new Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the United States was backing away from its commitment—particularly to economic human rights.

George Kennan, then head of the State Department's policy planning staff, wrote, “We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth, but only 6.3 percent of the world's population. Our real task in the coming period is … to maintain this position of disparity. … We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world--benefaction. … The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

In the United States, to argue that economic justice is achievable is to brand oneself either naive and unrealistic.

Although Kennan was talking specifically about the Far East, he articulated a widely held set of assumptions that shaped both domestic and foreign policy in the United States for the next 60 years. But are they true? Are they correct in the practical, factual sense? Are they right in the moral sense?

The large majority of the world's nations—the 155 nations that have ratified the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights—have answered a resounding “No!” to all of the above. But in the United States, to argue that economic justice is achievable is to brand oneself either naive and unrealistic or, until very recently, a Red.

Nevertheless, a committed minority of U.S. leaders, poor people, and people of conscience have risked articulating a vision of a nation without poverty. Among the leaders were Franklin Roosevelt, who included “freedom from want” among his “four essential freedoms”; Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the U.N. committee that wrote the UDHR and first articulated economic, social, and cultural rights; and Martin Luther King, Jr., who orchestrated the Poor People's Campaign of 1968, a “crusade to reform society in order to realize economic and social justice.” Alongside them marched thousands of poor people and people of conscience, including those working for economic human rights today through the Poor People's Campaign for Economic Human Rights.

Human Rights Divided

The UDHR, like the U.S. Declaration of Independence, was not intended to be enforceable. The plan was to follow it with a covenant that would have the force of a treaty and make these rights “justiciable,” that is, enforceable in a court of law.

But in 1948 the Cold War was already heating up, the political will was cooling down, and good intentions were evaporating. The Soviet Union refused to support political and civil rights, arguing that these “luxuries” must be preceded by economic rights. The United States refused to support economic rights, -arguing that they implied a commitment to socialism. And there the world -remained stuck for almost two decades.

Eighteen years later, to break the impasse, a compromise was put forward that was an enormous disappointment to the UDHR's supporters: the fundamental human rights named in the Declaration were broken apart and codified in two covenants instead of one: the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, which the United States ratified, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which it did not.

The Covenant on Political and Civil Rights contained such rights as freedom of expression and assembly, and freedom from arbitrary arrest—rights the U.S. Constitution already guaranteed. This covenant, then, was relatively easy for the United States to support.

But the rights codified in the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)—the right to work and to just conditions of work; the right to education; the right to the highest -attainable standard of health; the right to clothing, housing, social security, and adequate food and nutrition, including the right to water—went well beyond the U.S. Constitution. So the United States refused to ratify the covenant that makes these rights enforceable, even though it led the way to their -articulation in 1948. The 155 nations that have ratified the CESCR grant their citizens many justiciable rights that U.S. simply doesn't recognize.

Mere Aspirations

What difference does it make to you, if you are one of America's 37 million poor people, to know that people in other countries have economic rights that you don't?

In terms of immediate relief, not much.

It does explain why you are not entitled to housing, food, and medical care, even though you live in the richest country in the world: these things are “goals,” not rights, according to the U.S. State Department. It also explains why, when you demand a decent standard of living, you are viewed as a freeloader begging for an undeserved handout, even though you are simply asking for the basic rights that all humans are entitled to by consensus of the international community.

The widespread acceptance of economic rights around the world is the most powerful organizing tool the world's poor have ever had.

Too, the fact that so many other nations have accepted economic rights means, according to some scholars, these rights have entered the realm of international “customary” law, which is enforceable, whether the United States ratifies the CESCR or not. That means that you are gradually gaining access to international courts and legal remedies that you can't get in U.S courts.

Best of all, the widespread acceptance of economic rights around the world is the most powerful organizing tool the world's poor have ever had. It unites poor people around their shared experience of poverty, across the divisions of race, ethnic group, religion, gender, and single-issue priorities, and it dignifies their fight to eradicate poverty.

A New and Unsettling Force

“There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little or even nothing to lose,” Martin Luther King, Jr., once observed. “If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.”

King was killed just a month before his own Poor People's Campaign got under way. But he might be encouraged to know that fifty years later, another campaign, modeled after his, is busy harnessing that “unsettling force.” The Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) lays out ambitious goals: “to unite the poor across color lines” in order to “abolish poverty everywhere and forever.”

“We're coming together and we're saying, ‘We want a world where everyone does have a house. We want a world where everyone does have healthcare,'” says Devin DiBernardo, manager of the systemic change program at Sisters of the Road. Her organization, which assists and advocates for the homeless, is one of about 70 organizations from across the nation that have joined the campaign, most of them led by poor people themselves.

These people fight hard for a world without poverty. They orchestrate marches, like the March of the Americas in 1999, where members of the PPEHRC met up with organizations from Central and South America in Washington, D.C., then turned their backs on the U.S. capitol, marched to New York, and presented their grievances to the U.N. They document economic human rights abuses by going door-to-door in poor neighborhoods, walking urban streets, visiting hospital waiting rooms and employment offices to record the stories of poor people. They file lawsuits in U.S. courts. They use international legal mechanisms like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to demand redress of U.S. human rights violations.

In the summer of 2006, they held a National Truth Commission in Cleveland, Ohio, where poor people from across the country came to be seen and heard, fighting the invisibility that isolates them from the mainstream. And they were in Nairobi, Kenya, presenting information about poverty in the United States at the 2007 World Social Forum.

Wasting the nation's resources on an immoral war makes it impossible to win a war on poverty at home.

Uniting poor people across color lines is one of the goals—and the successes—of this campaign, as it was for the Poor People's Campaign in 1968. That part of their work hasn't been as difficult as it might seem, DiBernardo says, because of the shared experience of poverty, particularly when poverty is combined with parenthood. “A lot of people involved in the campaign are parents who don't want their kids to have it as hard as they did.”

Another of the campaign's themes would sound familiar to King, too—the idea that wasting the nation's resources on an immoral war makes it impossible to win a war on poverty at home.

What will it take, then, to assure the economic rights of poor Americans?

The solution isn't easy, but it's simple. All of us will have to shoulder some responsibility for the way things are and the cost of fixing them. We'll have to work hard to create the political will to address the deep, systemic problems. We'll have to insist on changing our national spending priorities to pay for the changes. But most importantly, we'll have to surrender our worn-out belief that self-interest is the only political game in town.

Can we do this? It's time we tried.

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