Human Rights Day 2012: How the US is Failing to Defend Basic Human Rights at Home


Sixty-four years ago today, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). In honor of the annual Human Rights Day, let's talk what we can do to improve human rights right here in America.

When I think of human rights, I usually think of freedom of religion or the right to due process — “Bill of Rights” style freedoms, basically. But did you know that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights also includes food, health care and housing as basic rights? Article 25 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights reads as follows:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” [UDHR]

Poverty remains a significant problem in America despite many attempts to ameliorate it.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 15.9% of Americans lived below the poverty line in 2011. That’s 48.5 million people! States with the lowest poverty rates were New Hampshire, Maryland, New Jersey and Alaska, while New Mexico and Mississippi have the highest poverty rates. The poverty threshold is calculated as the cost of living according to the Consumer Price Index.

The percentage of those living in poverty is particularly high among a few groups. 27.6% of Blacks and 25.3% of Hispanics live below the poverty line (note: I am aware that there are issues with the way that the Census Bureau categorizes races). Women are more likely than men to fall below the poverty line, as are children — 21.9% of children lived in families below the poverty line. 

High poverty rates leave many Americans without the basic right of food, health care or housing. 

In 2011, 14.9% of households in the United States were food-insecure. 50.1 million people lived in those food-insecure households. According to Feeding America, “food insecurity exists in every county in America.” The states with the highest levels of food insecurity are Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.

In a single 24-hour period in January 2012, 633,782 Americans were homeless. According to End Homelessness, “nearly 4 in 10 [of the homeless] were unsheltered." Homeless rates are significantly higher for released prisoners, young adults who have aged out of foster care and veterans.

As has been well documented and discussed in the last few years, lack of health insurance remains a major problem in America. 15.7% of Americans do not have health insurance, or 48.6 million people. This number actually improved for the first time in years as people began to take advantage of provisions of Obamacare (such as adults under 26 being able to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans). This number should continue to improve as Obamacare is implemented in the next few years.

America, we can do better. Human rights are more than just equal pay for equal work, gay marriage or the freedom to light candles on Hanukkah — although those things are important too. This holiday season, I urge you to find a food bank near you and help every American enjoy their basic human rights.

You can learn more about the annual Human Rights Day celebrations at the Office of High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) at the United Nations. This year's theme is "My Voice Counts" and focuses on the right to "inclusion in public life."