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.
Security is vital to our human dignity. There are few things as demeaning as being denied the ability to properly feed, clothe, or house oneself, and few things as frightening as the inability to provide for the health, welfare, and safety of one’s family. Struggling against countless, insuperable barriers to security can sap the human spirit as surely as insecurity itself. As Cesar Chavez once said of himself and his fellow farmworkers, “We are men and women who have suffered and endured much, and not only because of our abject poverty but because we have been kept poor.”
Without a foundation of economic stability and safe and healthy living conditions, it is nearly impossible for people 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.
Security for all is 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 of economic upheaval and transition, 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.”
Ensuring that all Americans have the tools to meet their basic needs is part and parcel of our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The lack of affordable housing, healthcare, and other economic rights threatens and, too often, takes the lives of tens of thousands of Americans. For millions more, debilitating poverty hampers their exercise of liberty in many aspects of life. As President Roosevelt said in his 1944 State of the Union address, “we have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” The relationship between security and the pursuit of happiness should be self-evident; it is not that material wealth brings happiness, but that a minimum level of economic and social stability is necessary if we are fully to enjoy our lives.
A large body of human rights law 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.” The Universal Declaration goes on to guarantee everyone “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.”
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.”