The basic principle and justification for economic justice set forth in Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is that “everyone, as a member of society, . . . is entitled to realization. . . of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”
In the United States, which remains the largest economy of the world with GDP (nominal) over $20 trillion in 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau reports the number of people in poverty in 2018 was 38.1 million, and the official poverty rate was 11.8 percent. The burden of poverty is crushing to anyone impacted, but it falls unevenly, as evidenced by the poverty rate for children (16.8 percent), the disabled (25.7 percent), and those without a high school diploma (25.9 percent). Poverty rates by race in 2018 were: non-Hispanic whites, 8.1 percent; blacks, 20.8 percent; Hispanics, 17.6 percent; and Asians, 10.1 percent. In 2018, of those in poverty, 45.3 percent—an astonishing 17.3 million people—met the Census Bureau definition for deep poverty.
The U.S. Census Bureau also reports the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which gauges the effects of transfers and taxes and other necessary expense (medical and expenses related to work) as a measure of economic well-being. The SPM rate for 2018 was 12.8 percent, a full 1 percent higher than the official poverty rate. Significantly, Social Security transfers and refundable tax credits prevented 27.2 million and 8.9 million individuals, respectively, from falling into poverty. But medical expenses pushed 8 million more people into poverty.
Another important measure of those struggling financially is called ALICE, an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. It is used by United Way and various academic and state organizations in 20 states to identify people who do not earn enough to afford necessities and may not be eligible or earn out of various government benefits or tax credits. For example, the ALICE 2019 Pennsylvania report noted that of Pennsylvania’s 5 million households, 13 percent lived in poverty in 2017 and another 24 percent were ALICE households, a combined 37 percent below the ALICE threshold.
Economic insecurity is pervasive. The Federal Reserve noted in its Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2018 that of adults responding to the hypothetical question of how they would face an unexpected expense of $400, only 61 percent would cover it with cash, savings, or a credit card; 27 percent would have to borrow or sell something to pay the expense; and 12 percent would not be able to cover it at all.