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Aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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Co-authored by Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg and Sheila Collins

On Tuesday, December 10 the world observed Human Rights Day, marking the 65th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is sometimes forgotten that this Universal Declaration has important roots in American soil. The Commission that framed the Universal Declaration was led by Eleanor Roosevelt who was deeply influenced by her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt's thinking, particularly regarding the interdependence of economic, political, and civil rights. As she observed at the time, President Roosevelt believed that freedom without bread was meaningless.

In his Annual Message to Congress in 1944, President Roosevelt went further in joining the vaunted American ideal of freedom and liberty to economic rights: by proposing an Economic or Second Bill of Rights. In this message, Roosevelt referred to the U.S. Constitution and invoked familiar words, phrases and ideals from the American Declaration of Independence:

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights.... They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however--as our industrial economy expanded--these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.....

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all....

Roosevelt's Economic Bill of Rights began with the guarantee of what he subsequently referred to as the "paramount right" -- the right to useful work. It was to be living-wage work that would "earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation." The Universal Declaration, for its part, further elaborated this economic right, calling, in addition to the right to work, the right for just and favorable payment, for equal pay for equal work, and for the right to form and join trade unions.

Unfortunately, this paramount economic right has not been accepted as self-evident, either in the United States or elsewhere. The failure to guarantee this right is not simply a consequence of the worldwide Great Recession. Also at play, is the divergence between productivity growth and wage growth, where gains have gone almost exclusively to the top earners -- exacerbating income inequality. An estimated 18 million people in the United States are working poor, meaning they are employed full-time, year-round for less than the four-person poverty level -- around $22,000 in earnings per year. Meanwhile, 10.9 million Americans are unemployed and an additional 5.7 million "missing workers" have completely dropped out of the jobs search and are no longer counted in the monthly Jobs Reports.

The rise in poverty in America underscores that it is time for Congress to act, to pivot away from austerity, and focus on creating jobs and economic growth for everyone, as it has done historically. Today, millions of American families are struggling to satisfy their basic needs. Our solution to this poverty and unemployment crisis is the "Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Training Act" (H.R. 1000), a 21st Century New Deal proposal to put all Americans to work rebuilding and modernizing our communities.

The declared ideals of nations or united nations are important, for even though achievements fall short of aspirations, they can serve to urge humanity forward. Take the paradox of a Declaration by slaveholders that "all men are created equal." Even at the dark moment when too many of the gains of Civil War had been lost, the great African-American leader W.E.B. DuBois urged his people to "cling unwaveringly" to "those great words" of the Declaration. In observing Human Rights Day we must "cling unwaveringly" to the ideals of the Universal Declaration and its stirring American antecedents, but we must seize the opportunity to take stock of the gap between aspirations and achievements in order to urge ourselves forward.

Representative John Conyers, Jr. is the Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, representing Southeast Michigan. Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg is Professor Emerita of Social Policy at Adelphi University. Sheila D. Collins is Professor Emerita of Political Science at William Paterson University. They are co-founders of the National Jobs for All Coalition, and editors/co-authors of the recently published, When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal (Oxford University Press, 2013).