Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the initiative of Eleanor Roosevelt, the UDHR, consisting of 30 articles, was passed by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948, as a recognition that every human being has human rights, and that those rights must be recognized and protected.
What are human rights? In the United States, we generally think of human rights in the political realm, such as our Bill of Rights. That includes freedom of thought, speech, and religion, the right to a fair trial, the right to privacy and the right to be free of discrimination.
While most of us take our political rights as givens and would fight to the death to hang onto them, we have not been as assertive about economic rights. The former Soviet Union, on the other hand, focused on economic rights, providing basic needs for all its citizens, but it had little respect for political rights.
Most European countries and some other democracies have tried to provide political rights and “social, cultural, and economic rights.” The latter include universal coverage for health care, living wages for nearly all workers, cash benefits for unemployed people, subsidized housing, free child care and other basic needs benefits.
What are these “social, cultural, and economic rights?” Article 23 of the UDHR, for example, declares that “everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” Article 24 says everyone has the right to rest and leisure.
Article 25 states that every person has the right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care …” and “motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance.” Article 26 begins with “Everyone has a right to education.” Those four articles, especially, are considered “economic human rights.”
Economic human rights are not a new idea. Workers have fought for generations for decent wages and an adequate income to feed their families. Women have demanded assistance so their children could grow up with enough food and in good health. Unemployed people have marched for jobs.
After the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a 1941 speech called “Four Freedoms.” The fourth freedom was the “Freedom from Want,” arguing that one purpose of government was “to promote the general welfare of the people.” He also recommended an economic bill of rights in his 1944 State of the Union address.
Both Richard Nixon, who proposed a guaranteed annual income in 1969, and Jimmy Carter, with his 1977 Program for Better Jobs and Income, offered a first step toward economic human rights, but neither plan made it through Congress. That’s because, over most of the last 60 years, politicians traditionally have trumpeted personal responsibility, not governmental responsibility, as a way to meet economic needs.
But, personal responsibility has its limitations; our economy never has had full employment or paid many of its willing workers enough to make ends meet. Now, working people are being squeezed between unemployment and plunging wages for whatever jobs remain, while costs for basics such as food, fuel, and health care rise precipitously.
Should millions of hardworking people suffer because the bankers and real estate speculators were greedy, or federal regulators were asleep at the switch, or companies have gone overseas and left workers without jobs?
We can do better at taking care of one another. Promoting independence and personal responsibility doesn’t mean abandoning those who are trying to succeed. Unemployment, homelessness, hunger and lack of medical insurance are failures that we don’t have to tolerate any longer.
We can decide, instead, that everyone deserves economic human rights to a living wage job or other adequate income, enough food, clothing, and fuel, affordable health care, a chance for higher education, and decent housing.
It’s time we expand our thinking about what each person’s rights are to include not just the Bill of Rights but an equally important Bill of Economic Rights. Let’s begin thinking about the necessity of economic human rights today, on this 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Larry Dansinger of Monroe works with No Class, a group working to end economic division and discrimination in Maine.