We Americans tend to be self-satisfied about our national commitment to civil liberties and human rights; when political figures talk about “American Exceptionalism,” they evoke images of the City on the Hill, a virtuous (albeit imaginary) metropolis where liberty and equality are celebrated by a moral citizenry, the rule of law is respected, and human rights are enjoyed by all citizens.
Needless to say, that City is still under construction—and so is our understanding of the nature of human rights. In the United States, we tend to think of human rights in terms of legal rights: equality before the law, civil rights protections against discrimination, an equal right to participate in the democratic process and to have our electoral preferences count at the ballot box. But if we are honest, most of us will acknowledge the existence of non-legal challenges to the full realization of equal human rights.
Poverty is such a challenge; a citizen working two or three jobs just to put food on the table doesn’t have much time or energy left over for civic engagement and the exercise of the franchise. In my state of Indiana, and an increasing number of other states, that’s a lot of people.
In 2014, the United Ways of Indiana took a hard look at “ALICE” families. ALICE is an acronym—the letters stand for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. ALICE families are households with income above the federal poverty level, but below what it actually costs to live.
The report was eye-opening.
- More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working 40 or more hours a week.
- In Indiana, 37% of households live below the Alice threshold, with some 14% below the poverty level and another 23% above poverty but below the cost of living.
- These families and individuals have jobs, and most do not qualify for social services or support.
Despite widespread stereotypes, poverty is not limited to single mothers on welfare; most people who cannot make ends meet work forty or more hours a week. Often they work two jobs. The problem isn’t sloth, or lack of diligence; the problem is jobs that don’t pay a living wage.
What makes this situation even more troubling is the fact that the low-wage jobs these workers are doing are critically important to their communities. These are our child care workers, laborers, movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants—people who perform the myriad tasks that make it possible for the rest of us to go about our business each day.
These workers are the human infrastructure of our communities, yet they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night. They are one automobile breakdown, one broken leg, one sick child away from losing a job, having the gas or electricity shut off, or being unable to pay the rent.
These are the people on Medicaid who will lose access to healthcare if “Trumpcare” replaces the Affordable Care Act.
ALICE families don’t have time or energy for civic participation or political engagement. People preoccupied by a daily struggle for subsistence are unable to participate fully in the formation and conduct of civic society, and giving them an “equal” legal right to do so, while depriving them of the means, is hollow.
I believe it was Anatole France who said “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”