Occupy Wall Street and International Human Rights

By Davis, Martha F. | Fordham Urban Law Journal, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Occupy Wall Street and International Human Rights


Davis, Martha F., Fordham Urban Law Journal


"We are the 99 percent" is a great slogan. It correctly defines the issue as being the middle class versus the elite (as opposed to the middle class versus the poor). (1)

Introduction
  I. Does Economic Inequality Violate International Human
     Rights?
     A. Poverty and Human Rights
     B. Inequality and Human Rights
 II. Poor People's Movements and International Human Rights
     A. The 1960s-70s and the Welfare Rights Movement
     B. The 1990s to Today
III. The Impacts of Economic Inequality on Human Rights
     Values
     A. Impacts on Public Goods and Values of Democracy
     B. The Lens of Class-Based Inequalities
Conclusion

INTRODUCTION

By definition, practically ali of us are in the "99 percent" of Americans with annual incomes below $506,553. (2) Yet at the same time that the 99 percent slogan unites us, it also masks vast differences in income and economic stability between households. Of that 99% of Americans, about 6%--or one out of fifteen--live in extreme poverty, defined within the United States as having income of less than half of the official poverty line. (3) The number of Americans with incomes at or below the national poverty line is even greater, at fifty-one million. (4) Looking even more broadly, the Census Bureau reports that about one-third of the American population has incomes below 150% of the poverty line. (5) These working households typically "live paycheck to paycheck," with little to spare for extras beyond basic household necessities. (6) The remaining two-thirds of Americans, labeled "other" in Census Bureau reports on the growth of U.S. poverty, are above the 33% identified as poor but below the 1% defined by the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement as excessively wealthy. In varying degrees, this top one-third of Americans has a share of the economic prosperity of the nation. While many in this group enjoy only a small fraction of the wealth held by the very top echelons of U.S. earners, their economic existence is also vastly different--and considerably more stable-than that of the bottom rungs of the national economic ladder. (7)

Our collective membership in the "99 percent" notwithstanding, the inequality between economic sectors and across income levels in the U.S. is greater than ever and still growing. (8) According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, between 1979 and 2007, aftertax income grew by 275% for the top 1% of households, 65% for the next 19%, just under 40% for the next 60%, and 18% for the bottom 20%. (9) Analyzing government data, economists Thomas Picketty and Emmanuel Saez calculate that these income disparities are the greatest since 1928, shortly before the stock market crash of 1929 that ushered in the Great Depression. (10)

The genius of the OWS movement is to unite these increasingly economically disparate groups, from the bottom 6% of earners up to the ninety-ninth percentile, around issues of economic inequality. Historically, these economic sectors, even intimes of less inequality, have not always been united. Despite clearly overlapping interests, workers' rights and organizing efforts have been distinct from similar efforts by the very poor. (11) For example, in the 1960s, poor people in the United States, with liberal middle class allies, mobilized around efforts to address poverty, resulting in the Welfare Rights Movement of the 1960s that followed on the national War on Poverty. (12) Efforts to explicitly expand the welfare rights movement to include workers, and thus transition toward a movement addressing broader issues of economic justice, foundered. (13) From the opposite direction, efforts to expand more middle class movements to include the poor have also failed. For example, the significant successes of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., could not be replicated when Reverend King turned his attention to the rights to adequate housing and the Poor People's Campaign shortly before his death. …

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