In-Depth: Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) introduced this Constitutional amendment to ensure the fundamental rights to housing, healthcare, education, and nutrition for all Americans:
“If we are going to fulfill our nation's promise of equal opportunity, we must ensure every American has access to the tools needed to make opportunity possible. For far too long, our priorities haven't reflected the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness enshrined in our Constitution. We must make a commitment to invest in every man, woman and child in our nation by providing adequate funding for federal affordable housing programs, improving our healthcare system, addressing inequality in the public-school system, and expanding access to quality nutrition."
In the same letter, Rep. Adams’ office also provided key statistics illustrating the need for housing, healthcare, nutrition and education to be enshrined in the Constitution and protected as rights. Highlights are summarized below:
- Housing: The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) reports an 8.7 million unit shortage of rental housing which has led to millions of renters being cost-burdened or homeless. On any given night, approximately 550,000 U.S. families are homeless and on a yearly basis, 2.5 million American children are homeless.
- Healthcare: Millions of Americans forego basic healthcare needs and ration or skip life-saving prescriptions due to the cost of standard care. Bankruptcies due to medical bills are the number one type of bankruptcy proceeding in the U.S. Despite effective federal programs’ existence (i.e., Medicare, Medicaid, DOD TRICARE, VHA, IHS and SCHIP), 28 million Americans remain uninsured.
- Nutrition: On a daily basis, 40 million Americans struggle to put food on their tables. There are approximately 12.9 million children who lack consistent access to enough food to live active, healthy lives. Although 58% of food-insecure households participate in major federal food assistance programs (i.e., SNAP, the National School Lunch Program and WIC), these programs still haven’t ended hunger and food insecurity in the U.S. They are also insufficient, with SNAP benefits providing only $1.40 per meal.
- Education: Investment in public schools, especially those serving low-income and minority students, has consistently decreased in the 21st century while private school funding has dramatically increased. This is widening the gap in educational attainment between wealthy and low-income Americans.
Writing for the Pacific Legal Foundation blog in March 2018, Sacramento-based attorney Tim Snowball argued that government isn’t the source of our rights, and therefore has no authority to create new rights. He also argued that “inherent human equality and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness possessed by all regardless of particular circumstances” are the only rights:
“[T]he entire purpose of government is to protect the preexisting natural rights of individuals. Governments are not founded in order to create new rights and arbitrarily dispense benefits upon preferred groups, but to secure rights that existed before governments were ever created. It is the people, therefore, who give the government its power, without which it would be powerless, and without which it cannot legitimately act… [T]here is no such thing as ‘women’s rights,’ or ‘gay rights,’ or ‘minority rights,’ which can be granted, modified, or restricted based on nothing more than the political winds or desires of fluctuating majorities. There is only inherent human equality and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness possessed by all regardless of particular circumstances. These rights exist beyond the reach of any government’s power.”
This joint resolution has the support of three Democratic cosponsors and the Food Research and Action Center.
Of Note: The right to housing has been codified by a wide range of International legal instruments under the umbrella of the auspices of the UN. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly on 1948, was the first important document codifying the right to adequate housing. Article 25 of the UDHR says:
"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."
Thus, the UDHR also recognizes the right to healthcare and has been signed by all 192 member states of the United Nations (including the U.S. in 1948), but it is not a binding treaty.
Within the U.S., President Franklin Roosevelt declared in his 1944 State of the Union address that the U.S. had a “Second Bill of Rights,” including the right to a decent home. More recently, in 2010, President Barack Obama called it “simply unacceptable for individuals, children, families, and our nation’s veterans to be faced with homelessness in this country.” In March 2011, the U.S. made commitments to the UN Human Rights Council to “reduce homelessness,” “reinforce safeguards to protect the [homeless people’s] rights” and continue efforts to ensure access to affordable housing for all.
Then, in October 2016, the U.S. signed onto the New Urban Agenda, which was the outcome report of the UN Habitat III conference. Signatories to that document committed to promoting “national, sub-national, and local housing policies that support the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing for all as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, that address all forms of discrimination and violence, prevent arbitrary forced evictions, and that focus on the needs of the homeless, persons in vulnerable situations, low income groups, and persons with disabilities, while enabling participation and engagement of communities and relevant stakeholders, in the planning and implementation of these policies including supporting the social production of habitat, according to national legislations and standards.”
In its 2018 Advocates’ Guide, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) reported that the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), Dept. of Justice (DOJ) and Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) all addressed criminalization of homelessness as a human rights issue on their websites. Additionally, all three agencies had implemented human rights bodies’ recommendations on this issue.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / ellisonphoto)