Grassroots Network Gets Human Rights Into Budget Law

February 21, 2013

A recent briefing introduced me to a state budget campaign launched by the Vermont Workers’ Center. It’s quite different from most budget campaigns I’m familiar with.

And I think there are things that advocates –and everyday concerned citizens — can learn from it. So let me tell you a bit about it.

The Workers’ Center is a grassroots network that’s branched out from workplace issues to “the full range of issues of concern to working people.”

Two years ago, they racked up a significant victory — a law that promises to make publicly-funded health care a right for everyone who lives in Vermont.

Now the Center has turned its attention to the broader issue of state spending and revenue policies. And again, they’ve racked up a victory.

In this case, it’s an amendment to the state’s budget law that establishes basic principles for the budget — what it should do and how it should be developed.

The latter has to do with processes for public participation. These are still in the development stage, but apparently moving toward completion.

The what-the-budget-should-do part is potentially more revolutionary — and for two reasons.

First, it adopts a human rights framework. “Spending and revenue policies,” it says, will “recognize every person’s need for health, housing, dignified work, education, food, social security and a healthy environment.”

This is far more than the symbolic gesture the DC Council made when it declared the District a human rights city. And it’s much broader than the Illinois anti-poverty strategy I wrote about some time ago.

The Vermont law essentially provides a test for virtually any spending proposal. Does it “advance human dignity and equity”? Does it help meet any of the specified needs — or more generally, “promote economic well-being … and a vibrant economy”?

Also revolutionary is the notion that the costs of meeting the Vermont people’s needs should drive revenue policies.

That, at any rate, is how a director at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative — one of the Workers’ Center’s lead partners — characterizes the “reframed” budget purpose.

As we all know, budgeting generally works very differently.

First, there’s a revenue projection and some sort of account of what the government spent and would have to spend to keep operating as it has. Also, in some cases, a spending target, e.g., the federal deficit reduction targets enshrined in the Budget Control Act.

Then the money gets divvied up — first by the chief executive, e.g., the President, the state governor, then by committees in the legislature and finally by the legislature as a whole.

Okay, I know this is over-simple. In most states, for example, the governor can veto particular items in the budget the legislature has passed — or in all but one state, the whole damn thing.

And, of course, Congress can do whatever it chooses with budgets enacted by the District of Columbia.

Nevertheless, there’s always a fixed amount of money to spend — even if the evolving budget includes revenue raisers.

Organizations representing different interests and/or communities contend for the biggest share of the budget pie they can get. This often means defending the share of the pie they’ve got — over and over again as the years roll on.

Conflicts among them may be smoothed over. That’s part of what broad-based coalitions are for. But I doubt any interest group has sat out a budget season in deference to another.

The end result is winners and losers, even within what we might call the human needs community.

This is what the Vermont Workers’ Center seeks to replace with its People’s Budget, which would stand the customary budget process on its head.

Costs of meeting people’s basic needs would come first. Revenue raisers would follow, if needed to meet those costs.

I’ve some doubts about how this process will fare when the rubber hits the road.

Will Vermont legislators actually pass tax increases sufficient to fulfill the human rights vision embodied in the budget law?

Or will there be the usual push-and-pull between spending and revenue policies? And the usual competition among interests, including the big one between those who want more spending and those who think their taxes are already too high?

Guess we’ll have to wait and see. And hope that the experiment pans out. Because it could become a model for budget reforms elsewhere.

Even in its infancy, it gives us a fresh way of thinking about how budgets are made — and what we do (and don’t). We all, I think, can benefit from that.


Illinois Commission Frames Poverty As Human Rights Issue

January 13, 2011

In mid-December, the Illinois Commission on the Elimination of Poverty released a strategy for cutting the state’s extreme poverty rate in half by 2015. Extreme poverty here means, as it usually does, living below 50% of the federal poverty line.

I find a couple of things about this strategy interesting.

One is the fact that it exists at all. Because it’s not an agenda some nonprofit organization developed. The commission is an official entity established by the state legislature to do exactly what it’s done.

Not only that, but established when the recession was well under way, by a unanimous vote in both the House and the Senate. This could provoke either hope or skepticism. Inclining to the former, I think it suggests that Republicans and Democrats alike felt the need for a road map.

And they’ve got one. A year-by-year plan, phasing in a total of 42 recommendations in seven major areas.

We who live in the District know that strategies don’t necessarily guide policy decisions. Witness our strategy for ending homelessness by 2014.

Nevertheless, I think Illinois may be better off for having a holistic view of its poverty problem and how to address it — as indeed would the District and other jurisdictions.

A second interesting thing is how the commission approached its task. From the outset, it established three types of recommendations it would produce, each corresponding to a sector of the state’s very poor population.

As we might expect, there are recommendations for working-age adults who need more education and training to get jobs that will pay enough to lift them and their families out of extreme poverty. There are recommendations for increasing access to public benefits for people who work but don’t make enough — and in a couple of cases, for increasing the benefits.

But there are also recommendations aimed at ensuring that people who can’t and aren’t expected to work — seniors, children and individuals with severe disabilities — can live “in dignity.”

Nothing radical about the recommendations themselves. The commission clearly felt constrained by the realities the government faces — a weakened safety net, a rising poverty rate, an immediate budget shortfall of at least $13 billion and a huge unfunded pension liability.

Yet the commission takes pains to make room for what’s essentially the very old concept of the deserving poor. The big difference is that, in the commission’s strategy, all poor are deserving.

Which bring me to the last and perhaps most interesting thing. The legislature charged the commission with addressing poverty in Illinois “consistent with international human rights standards.” This influenced both the commission’s process and its product.

It essentially justifies its proposals by citing and elaborating on the provision in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.”

This, the commission says, is based on our American tradition — a stretch I think, but probably needed to domesticate its vision.

We’re accustomed these days to seeing anti-poverty strategies justified on economic grounds. Much about the long-term costs of child poverty, for example — drains on public benefits programs, costs due to criminal behavior, reduced national productivity, etc.

We need these arguments, especially for policymakers fixated on the bottom line. But it’s good and important, I think, to reaffirm basic values — justice, compassion, the intrinsic worth of our fellow creatures.

That’s where the commission comes from. It prefaces its proposals with the proposition that “every human being deserves to have access to adequate amenities to fulfill his or her potential.”

In other words, the standard of living rights in the Universal Declaration — sufficient food, housing, medical care, social services and security when they can’t earn a living — “should be guaranteed, protected and made available to all people just because they exist as people.”

Imagine what would happen if our government officials and the majority of Americans who elect them felt this way.


Should We Have a Right To Housing?

January 30, 2010

Blogger Shannon Moriarty has come up with five reasons to feel hopeful about homelessness in 2010. Number two on her list is that homelessness will be discussed as a human rights issue.

She’s looking forward to the UN Special Rappoteur’s final report on her investigation into the housing situation here in the U.S. She expects the findings to be critical, as indeed the preliminary findings were.

But that’s not what’s got her so hopeful. It’s rather that the very fact of the report will provide an opportunity to re-frame homelessness as a human rights violation.

Echoing an earlier posting, she asserts that framing homelessness as a human right will place “a moral obligation on lawmakers and members of the community to see that all individuals are given access to something [in this case, housing] as a basic necessity.” Moreover, she says, it will “remove housing from the pool of issues fighting for priority.”

Dream on.

As Shannon notes, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which the U.S. voted for in 1948, includes a sweeping right to “a standard of living adequate for … health and well-being,” including food, clothing housing, medical care, necessary social services and security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond an individual’s control.”

Have our lawmakers felt morally obliged to provide any of this to “everyone … and his family?” What about “the right of every family to a decent home” that FDR said we’d accepted, “so to speak,” as part of a second Bill of Rights?

Surely there’s a place for appeals to morality–or moral values like compassion. But to believe that arguing from a human rights foundation will elevate housing above other issues seems to me naive. Nor am I at all sure we should want it out of the pool of related issues.

Why, after all, are people homeless? For the most part, because they can’t afford housing. Major reasons include lack of good health insurance, unemployment or under-employment, low wages and gaping holes in our safety net. Add to these community development policies that deplete the stock of low-cost housing.

So it seems to me to make more sense to integrate housing into a broad anti-poverty strategy like what Half in Ten proposes. A strategy of this sort can bring together advocates and service providers who come at the issues from various angles.

And it’s likely to win more friends in high places than a rhetoric based on rights, which after all are either empty words or enforceable by litigation. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which also champions a human rights approach, seems to envision the latter.

Can you imagine any legislative body agreeing to a right that might allow anyone who didn’t have a decent home to sue the government?

Shannon acknowledges that it may be impractical for homelessness advocates to adopt a human rights paradigm. If by impractical she means forfeiting results, then I think she’s right on target. And why advocate if not to get results?