Guarantee decent living conditions
On July 23, 2020, Pamela Rush died in Lowndes County, Ala. She was 49 years old. According to her death certificate, the cause of death was COVID-19. But Pamela had known she was dying from poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world.
I met Pamela several years ago, when I was in Alabama for a commemoration of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. Just a few miles from the route where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others had marched half a century earlier for voting rights and equality, Pamela showed me how her child had to wear a CPAP machine because of the mold in the trailer that predatory lenders tricked her into buying. She took me to the backyard where raw sewage pooled because the county refused to run water and sewer service to their trailer park. Pamela joined the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival because she knew her living conditions were not her fault: They were a failure of our society. Pamela knew that every American has a right to live in better conditions than she was able to offer her children. As she lay dying in the hospital, she sent a note asking us all to keep fighting poverty in America.
Just as a constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law was needed after the Civil War, an amendment to guarantee the right to decent living conditions is needed today.—
Though affordable housing, living wages, clean water, health care, and paid family leave are not guaranteed in the US Constitution, the federal government has affirmed them as rights since 1948. Article 25 of the United Nations’ International Declaration of Human Rights says that every person has a “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” But Pamela’s life and death in unnecessary squalor remind us that we have failed to live up to the commitments we made alongside the nations of the world.
Just as a constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law was needed after the Civil War, an amendment to guarantee the right to decent living conditions is needed today. This year’s debate in Congress about the Build Back Better Act has revealed a widespread lack of commitment among elected representatives to raise the revenues necessary to guarantee the most basic human rights. Corporate interests have successfully lobbied both Republicans and Democrats to embrace the belief that all Americans do well when the stock market does well and that an expectation of decent living conditions reflects an “entitlement mentality.”
Inequality in America today is greater than it has been at any point since the Gilded Age, yet Congress still hesitates to tax the wealthiest Americans so that people like Pamela can simply survive. In order to revive the heart of American democracy, poor and low-income people must link up with one another and with every possible ally to remake the basic structures of our society. A constitutional guarantee of decent living conditions would be a good place to start.
The Rev. William J. Barber II is the president of Repairers of the Breach and a cochair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.