In June 1990, future South African President Nelson Mandela addressed a joint session of Congress only months after being released from 27 years in a South African apartheid prison. He reminded the political leadership of the United States that “to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity. To impose on them a wretched life of hunger and deprivation is to dehumanise them.”
Three decades later, Congress would do well to finally heed that warning. In a moment of unprecedented crisis, when 140 million people in the richest country on the planet are poor or low-income, when tens of millions of them are on the verge of eviction and millions more have lost their healthcare in the midst of a pandemic, at a moment when Congress and the president are debating the next Covid-19 relief package, isn’t it finally time for human rights and guarantees to become the standard for any such set of policies?
I was introduced to the idea of using a human rights framework to address racism and poverty when I got involved in the National Union of the Homeless and the National Welfare Rights Union. From poor and dispossessed leaders building a human-rights-at-home movement, I learned about the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). I came to understand how the concept of inalienable rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution meant that all people should be guaranteed the right to jobs that pay living wages, an adequate standard of living, public education, and the ability to thrive (not just barely survive).
Today, Congress is being driven to respond to a crisis that has this country in its grip with a $1.9 trillion relief package. The lesson of history, however, is that such measures, when they align with the basic demands of justice, should not be piecemeal or temporary. They should not be opportunities accessible only to some but rather guarantees of promise and possibility for everyone. Plagues and pandemics are not simply storms to be weathered before a return to what passes for normal. Americans should not be fooled into thinking that the very policies and measures that left this world of ours a wreckage of inequality, racism, and poverty will now lift us out of this mess. Instead, our political leaders would do well to follow the principle of “Everybody In, Nobody Out.”
Matthew Rycroft of the United Kingdom Mission to the U.N. offered a warning to the Security Council appropriate to this pandemic moment:
“How a society treats its most vulnerable — whether children, the infirm or the elderly — is always the measure of its humanity. Even more so during instability and conflict. When a society begins to disregard the vulnerable and their rights, instability and conflict will only grow.”
The Right Not to Be Poor
In 1948, after two bloody world wars punctuated by the Great Depression, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, saw a need to safeguard basic rights and a minimum standard of living for people worldwide. The nations of the U.N., according to human rights scholar Paul Gordon Lauren,
“came to regard the economic and social hardship suffered during the course of the Depression as contributing greatly to the rise of fascist regimes, the emergence of severe global competition, and ultimately to the outbreak of war itself… They believed that poverty, misery, unemployment, and depressed standards of living anywhere in an age of a global economy and a technological shrinking of the world bred instability elsewhere and thereby threatened peace.”
At the time, the American government, ascendant on the international stage, saw some value in the framework of human rights, even if its actions at home and abroad didn’t match up to it. In reality, that same government was putting significant effort into separating political and civil rights from economic rights. It was using every tool in its toolbox from racism to Cold War paranoia to vilify the very idea of economic rights, let alone the interlocking nature of injustice and the need for wholistic remedies.
Social movements suffered from this ideological assault, as Black organizers in the 1950s and 1960s were blocked from the very idea of universal human (including economic) rights and pushed to focus more narrowly on the terrain of “civil rights,” as historian Carol Anderson has so vividly described in her book Eyes Off the Prize. Nearly two decades after the release of the UDHR, even on the heels of major civil rights victories, leaders of the Black freedom movement recognized that too much remained unchanged and a deeper fight was needed.
It was in this context that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and others began to articulate the necessity for a broad movement of the nation’s poor across racial lines.