December 10, 2019 HUMAN RIGHTS

Addressing Economic Justice in the Face of Inequality

by James J. Pierson

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.

Occupy Orlando on October 15, 2011.

Occupy Orlando on October 15, 2011.

In this issue of Human Rights magazine, Professors Francine J. Lipman and James E. Williamson address in their article “Taxing Poor Kids” how recent tax code changes for child tax credits perversely harm our most vulnerable children, while creating a windfall for income-rich households, and how, with reform, we can stand up for children.

As Stephen M. Dane points out in our fair housing policy article, Congress passed the very important federal Fair Housing Act in 1968 with broad bipartisan support. Yet today, the responsible federal agency is taking actions to suspend, eviscerate, or eliminate laws to affirmatively promote fair housing that result in low-income families continuing to be trapped in high-poverty and racially segregated areas. In “Source of Income Discrimination in Housing,” Antonia K. Fasanelli and Philip Tegeler provide helpful strategies for advocating for source of income legislation in your home area and for your clients.

John Mathews II and Marina A. Torres skillfully point out in their “Criminal Justice Debt Problems” article that our criminal justice system physically brutalizes and imprisons people simply because they are poor. Their article crystalizes and advances the conversation of criminal justice reform and compels unified action by all human rights activists. We urgently must do better.

See also Malia Brink’s article, “ABA Bail Policy: Taking Steps to Achieve Reform,” for a critical update on legislative and judicial action subsequent to passage of ABA Resolution 112C (August 2017) on bail policy.

An aim of consumer protection is to provide transparency and fairness to enhance bargaining equality. To that end, the article “Roadmap to Economic Justice” addresses auto purchase and loan issues of discrimination, dealer markup, transparency, timely notice, and lack of data collection that treat the poor unfairly by forcing them to pay more for a critical consumer need.

Student articles by Alexandra Holden on solving hunger anti-poverty policies, not anti-hunger policies, and Rotem Litinski on the justiciability of economic rights provide useful perspectives and advance our thinking on economic justice.

Finally, please see Mathew Mecoli’s column highlighting the tireless, outstanding advocacy from the staff of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, its founder Maria Foscarinis, and legal director Eric Tars. Their impressive legal victories and advocacy over a 30-year period are an inspiration.

James J. Pierson is chair, program director, and assistant professor of the Business & Entrepreneurship Department of Chatham University. He is also vice-chair of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice's Economic Justice Committee.