All people must have access to the means to provide for their own basic needs and those of their family. There is a minimum level of healthcare, housing, physical and environmental safety, and other protection below which no one must be allowed to fall.
As Americans feel an erosion of their foundation of economic stability and safe and healthy living conditions, it is nearly impossible for them to access the other opportunities that society has to offer, or to shoulder all of society’s responsibilities. A child who is hungry, ill or living in dangerous conditions will find it hard to excel academically or socially. And her parents, weathering the same challenges, will find it hard to thrive at work or at home, or to participate in the democratic and civic life of the nation.
We must treat security for all as one of the first responsibilities of government. In the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “we cannot be content, no matter how high [our] general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people — whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth — is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.” That governmental duty is greatest at times when the knowledge and skills on which people have relied for decades no longer provide the security that they once did, and when the concentration of great wealth is most likely to come at the expense of working and poor people. Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of our Constitution, recognized this responsibility, writing in 1785: “The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed.”
A child who is hungry, ill or living in dangerous conditions will find it hard to excel academically or socially. And her parents, weathering the same challenges, will find it hard to thrive at work or at home, or to participate in the democratic and civic life of the nation.
This begins by heeding the large body of human rights law that recognizes the right of every human being to social and economic security. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, provides that “everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.” Human rights principles also recognize that a society’s progress in providing social and economic security to its members depends in part on that society’s resources. Human rights laws thus call for the “progressive realization” of economic and social rights by each nation “to the maximum of its available resources.” These principles should be prioritized in policymaking.