The Right to a Decent Life

By Dority, Barbara | The Humanist, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview

The Right to a Decent Life


Dority, Barbara, The Humanist


It is time for us to recognize that poverty, homelessness, health care, and public education are all civil-liberties issues. The absence of the basic necessities of human life for millions of Americans not only renders moot many of their rights as citizens but is an insuferable blot on the consciousness of a nation laying claim to the ideal of liberty and justice for all.

Poverty. A comprehensive study in late 1992 by Tufts University's Center on Hunger, Poverty, and Nutrition Policy found that approximately 30 million Americans are undernourished; that 6 million people living in poverty receive no food stamps; that 10 million people living in poverty who do receive food stamps are often hungry because the supplementary federal program does not meet their nutritional needs; and that the program does not reach many eligible people. The House Select Committee on Hunger estimates that hunger has grown by 50 percent since the mid, 1980s.

Studies also show that most Americans are literally one paycheck away from being poor. The facts contradict the stereotype of welfare recipients living high on the hog, having innumerable children while collecting state aid. Almost 80 percent of families on welfare have only one or two children and about half work in a given year. (Of course they work! How can anyone seriously believe that $397 per month for a family of two is sufficient, much less too generous?) Why, then, do we stigmatize those who need our help with the necessities of life?

President Clinton's welfare-reform proposal is a step in the right direction toward restoring dignity and opportunity to welfare recipients. But we also need a far greater commitment to dealing with poverty's underlying complications: mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and lack of educational opportunity. We need more and better inner, city programs to help millions of kids without hope.

Our existing systems are rife with violations of due process, such as failure to provide representation and language interpreters in benefits hearings and failure to provide adequate information prior to the hearings. After long waits for decisions, recipients are subject to gross invasions of their privacy by welfare workers, which include questions pertaining to sexual activity and illegal home searches at all hours of the day and night. Clearly, these actions are violations of any citizen's freedom of speech and association. Being forced to relinquish elementary rights of privacy and decency in order to obtain financial assistance violates the fundamental precepts of a democratic society. Needless to say, this sort of government abuse of the weakest among us is also an affront to our humanist principles.

The blatant discrimination in pubic-assistance programs against single adults --especially single men--is unconscionable. Men deserve every bit as much compassion and help as women and children. If they are to become productive, self-sufficient citizens, federal-assistance programs will be necessary. Increases in the amount and duration of unemployment benefits and expanded benefits for veterans, detox centers, and vocational education would be a good beginning.

The denial of benefits necessary to the basic sustenance of life to some per, sons, while comparable benefits are afforded forded to others of the same financial circumstances, also raises civil-liberties concerns regarding constitutional requirements of equal protection and due process. Some states exclude from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program needy two-parent families in which the primary wage-earner is unemployed or working full time but the family income is still below the eligibility level.

Homelessness. The number of home, less people in America is undetermined. Advocates estimate the number to be at least 3 million (which includes about 1.5 million teenagers). Others dispute this number, charging that it is inflated. …

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