GYC Village

blog posts from GYC's participants, alumni, & staff

Economic Rights are Human Rights

by Cherilyn Sprague

Image Theater about Oppression in the USA, by the GYC delegates #gycnyc

How would the United States be different if all Americans (and our government) considered a living wage a human right? When I came to Global Youth Connect’s NYC delegation, I believed one of the biggest human rights issues in America was the lack of a living wage.

A living wage is the idea that the amount of money you make at your place of employment is enough to satisfy at least your minimum needs of housing, food, water, transportation, etc. The issue of income inequality is something I care very deeply about because of my father and his involvement is labor issues. When he was younger he never missed a union meeting, recognizing the importance to being a contributing member to a group that enabled him to have control of his work. When he was older, he helped other marine operating engineers switch unions when the local they belonged to was no longer meeting their needs.

I was always taught that every person should be able to work at a job and be able to support themselves with dignity, and that every person’s job is important. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger’s goals are not charity but dignity — they work to change economic policy that can help hungry people become self sufficient, as well as promoting programs available for hungry people.

When I was growing up I quickly realized that it is very easy for anybody to become hungry, and without a social safety net to catch you, life can be difficult. Meeting with leaders from the New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH) today really confirmed and ignited my feelings on a living wage as one of the most fundamental human rights. This was the first time I actually heard someone of importance, who has worked in the government and seen first hand what harm terrible economic policies can do, admit that a living wage was a human right. Many of the non-American participants were probably not shocked to hear it, but in America’s ideology the idea of a living wage is not something we think much about, and it’s something rarely focused on in our political system.

Hearing Joel Berg from NYCCAH express my exact beliefs literally brought me to tears. Joel’s idea that the human rights of free speech and protest are useless if you are hungry is something that resonates with me personally. One of the biggest problems with trying to promote social change is that if people are too busy trying to satisfy their basic needs such as food and shelter, they cannot worry about things that seem “too frivolous,” like social change.

The biggest barrier for social change in the United States is our disastrous economic policies and our ignorance of what being poor actually means and the realities they face. How can we begin to tackle the very real, sometimes complicated, human rights problems that exist when we have such a solvable human rights problem that we ignore? The reality is that because we do not have a living wage, mothers and fathers that work 60 or 70 hours a week at a minimum wage job cannot afford to feed their families, which causes its own set of social problems. The reality is that one in six people in America are at the brink of hunger.

Something we have been talking about this week is how dignity is tied to all human rights and that all people should have dignity in life. A dignified country to me is a country that pays those who work hard every day enough to feed their families. Not only should we be paying other people enough so they feel a sense of dignity, we should treat people better so that we ourselves can say we have dignity in the way we live our lives.

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