As a kid, I always thought of poverty as a global phenomenon rather than a local reality. Back then, just a few short decades ago, the United States was respected as a land of prosperity and opportunity, a far cry from the Third World America it has become.
Indeed, today it is the rest of the world telling the United States to address its own domestic poverty and burgeoning homelessness.
In January, the United Nations Human Rights Working Group concluded its Universal Periodic Review of the United States. The working group identified 228 recommendations, including suggestions that the United States "reinforce the broad range of safeguards in favor of the most vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities and the homeless" and "that further measures be taken in ... reducing the number of homeless people."
Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of State responded to the United Nations report, concurring with the Working Group's recommendations on addressing homelessness.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty noted in a press release that the United States' "response marks the first time that the Administration has acknowledged that homelessness in the U.S. implicates its human rights obligations."
Governmental acknowledgement of the relationship between homelessness and human rights certainly seems like a positive step, although I'm not sure how big a step it really is. Even though the U.S. Department of State's position on homelessness and human rights may be without precedent, it is not terribly surprising, since the statement is better understood as the sentiment of the Obama Administration rather than a fundamental shift in U.S. policy. Quite the contrary; as the United States is promising the United Nations it understands the gravity of domestic poverty, Congress is marred in a budget battle that threatens to defund critical programs in aid of the poor.
While discussions about homelessness and poverty are often couched in ideological terms, solutions must be funded in a system of resource scarcity and crafted with an empirical understanding of what social interventions actually work.
Therefore, while the United Nations' recommendations and U.S. Department of State's response culminate in a persuasive political statement, I'm afraid it has little to do with actually helping lift people out of homelessness and into better lives.
To be clear, I am not arguing that the U.N. report is off-base. The world is right to tell us we have a poverty and homelessness crisis. We do.
But as sure as domestic poverty and homelessness is our problem, we have to solve it too. And solving these problems takes innovation and funding, funding that is threatened by budget cuts.
If we are truly in agreement with the United Nations' findings, and if homelessness really is a human rights issue, then we must do everything we can to persuade our political representatives of this fact. Indignation and righteousness is not enough, not when it comes to people living on the streets and toiling in poverty. If homelessness is a human rights issue, we should demand our representatives behave more human themselves and protect funding for social programs.