United States Lagging in the United States

May 30, 2001

Mark Weisbrot
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, May 30, 2001

When Americans think of human rights violations, they don’t normally think of people like Freman Davis, a 71-year old retired African-American machinist living here in the Oakland Homeless Project. Mr. Davis’ troubles began seven years ago when he was evicted from his apartment.  With rising real estate prices here, he was never able to find another one that would fit within the means of his $570 monthly Social Security check.

Mr. Davis, who is also a disabled veteran of the Korean War, is one of the witnesses testifying as part of the Economic Human Rights Bus Tour. They told their stories this week to network TV crews, and audiences that included such urban Democratic members of the U.S. Congress as Barbara Lee of Oakland, Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and John Conyers of Detroit. 

They were articulate, persuasive, and often eloquent.  A sixteen-year-old homeless high school girl noted that while “other girls my age were worrying about who to date and what to wear, I was thinking about where I was going to sleep and where my next meal would come from.”

The Bus Tour, sponsored by the Oakland-based policy group Food First, visited homeless centers and single-room occupancy hotels in downtown Oakland this week to shine a spotlight on homelessness and poverty in California.

The affiliated groups are demanding that such basic needs as food, shelter, and health care be recognized by the United States government as fundamental human rights. They are backed not only by hundreds of activist and advocacy groups throughout the country, but also by the 56-member Progressive Caucus in the U.S. Congress.

Are they ahead of their time?  Or is America behind the times?

The United States is alone among the wealthy nations of the world in its failure to provide universal health insurance. The resulting patchwork of public and private insurers is so wasteful and inefficient that we end up spending twice as much per person on health care as do countries like Sweden, and still leave 43 million people uninsured.

With insurance premiums now rising again at double-digit rates, it is possible that the switch to a more efficient, universal, single insurer system would actually save money over the long run.  But even if it cost more, it is well within our means to insure the millions of people whose first and only visits to the doctor are in the emergency room.

Estimates of the homeless vary widely, but we could easily provide for them with a lot less than the $500 billion that the Bush Administration’s tax cut is giving to the richest one percent of taxpayers ¾ those with an average income of $1.1 million. And we already have a food stamp program, which would need to be expanded as well as extended to the millions of families who are currently eligible, but do not participate.

Although some may think these battles have been lost with the passage of President Bush’s tax cut, this is not necessarily true.   That tax cut represents only about a quarter of the projected budget surpluses over the next decade.

Right now, both parties are committed to using more than half of these surpluses ¾ that is, twice the amount that went to the tax cut ¾ for paying down the national debt. This commitment ¾ which would provide very little, if any, benefit to the economy ¾ is a recently developed bit of ideological nonsense that will surely fade if the economy continues to slow.

But we should not have to wait for a recession before we do something to provide for people’s most basic needs. On the contrary, the recent economic expansion ¾ the longest in American history ¾ has provided opportunities far beyond those that existed in the 1960s, the last time this country officially committed itself to a “War on Poverty.”  Regardless of what happens to the economy in the next year or so, the government’s future finances look better than they ever have in the past half-century.

Less than five years ago we lost our most important federal entitlement for poor children ¾ Aid to Families with Dependent Children ¾ despite the fact that we have the highest child poverty rate in the developed world (currently one in six).  Meanwhile,  Social Security ¾ our largest and most successful anti-poverty program ¾ is being set up by the Bush Administration for partial privatization and devastating cutbacks.

All the more reason to establish the principle that such basic needs as food, shelter, and health care are fundamental economic human rights ¾ so they cannot be swept aside with shifts in the political winds.

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