03/30/2011 02:45 pm ET Updated May 30, 2011

Washington DC's Mayor Must Respect Human Rights

The term "Human Rights abuse" tends to invoke images of authoritarian regimes that rob their citizens of their right to free expression and torture. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and holds the world record as the most translated document on earth -- protects citizens against such abuses.

The document also protects people's "economic rights." These include the right to adequate housing, freedom from hunger and access to essential medical care. Eleanor Roosevelt and the other framers included these rights because they knew that the concept of free expression requires healthy minds and bodies to carry ideas and that hunger and homelessness are their own forms of physical and physiological torture.

Washington DC's social safety net, which insures these basic economic rights to all DC residents, is again under threat. The city faces a $322 million budget gap that must be addressed through cuts or new revenue. In an effort to address this gap, Mayor Gray's office has indicated that they will be making cuts to "human services," programs that protect people with disabilities, the young and low-income families. These cuts will come after years of scaling back by previous administrations.

One program that was cut during the previous administration and is at risk of being slashed again is money for people with disabilities who are on the waiting list for federal Social Security Disability Assistance. Such supplemental assistance can be a lifeline for residents that can spend years waiting for federal funds.

Children's programs are also at risk. Recent reductions in childcare subsidies have already caused the closure of daycare centers around the city [1]. These centers are often small businesses run by women of color. Afterschool and summer activities for kids have been cut as well. While schools have largely been spared, studies have shown again and again that stable, supportive environments are essential to children's' success. Cutting these programs could have a profoundly negative effect on our city's youth.

A number of programs that house people who are homeless or prevent eviction may be slashed too. For example, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which helps keep people in their homes through a period of unemployment or family emergency, was reduced under the previous administration. Further cuts are expected in long- and short-term housing assistance. This will likely force low-income residents to relocate.

On April 1, DC's legal obligation to house the homeless will end as hypothermia season reaches its official last day. At that point, the city will likely stop admitting any additional homeless residents into shelters.

That same day, the mayor will announce his new budget. Already facing numerous scandals, Gray seems poised to take the politically easy road and place the burden of the city's budget shortfall overwhelmingly on the shoulders of its most vulnerable residents. From a Human Right's perspective, this decision would be deplorable.

The mayor has another choice. Instead of cutting more vital programs, he can address the budget shortfall through progressive revenue generation. Right now, DC's highest tax bracket starts at $40,000. When one takes into account deductions, many low-income earners actually pay more in taxes. By creating new tax brackets at $100,000, $200,000, and $500,000 with a half-percent increase on each bracket, DC could recover $100 million to put towards its residents' economics rights. This would be a big step towards addressing DC's budget problems.

Residents of the District of Columbia need to ensure that the mayor and City Council who will soon consider the budget, know there will be significant political costs to picking on the city's most vulnerable. I am sure he is aware of the risks of asking the powerful to pay their share, but it is only through this kind of leadership that we can build a just city. We must not let our lower-income neighbors fall further behind in this recession, but should stand with them, each contributing to the needs of our city.

[1] 2010 District of Columbia Child Care Market Rates and Capacity Utilization" by Office of the State Superintendent of Education, Division of Early Childhood Education, prepared by Center for Applied Research and Urban Planning, University of the District of Columbia, October 2010

Jack Healey is the former Executive Director of Amnesty International and has been a Washington DC resident for over 45 years. He now heads the Human Rights Action Center.