Today we concluded our meetings in South Africa with a budget analysis workshop and a discussion of our common challenges. Back in the U.S., the Census Department released new data showing 1 in 7 Americans live in poverty – the highest number and highest percentage on record, in what is still the wealthiest country on earth. The only way to explain this is that people are too willing to shut their hearts and minds to their fellow human beings’ suffering, to say “it’s ok if it happens to ‘them,’ and long as it’s not ‘us’.” So today’s lesson is one my wife shared with me long ago: at the end of the day, it all comes down to empathy.
Whether you’re in Cairo or Pretoria, Chicago or D.C., our budgets today are not based on ensuring people’s basic human rights and basic human needs are met. Most Americans live in subsidized housing –homeowners receive a mortgage income tax deduction that actually goes up the richer you are, and the bigger the house you own. Every year, the amount this costs our government is more than double the entire HUD budget for public housing and housing vouchers. Most homeowners see the mortgage tax deduction as an entitlement and would scream and shout if it were threatened, yet many are quick to criticize those living in public housing – most of whom are working families, elderly, or disabled persons – and say they shouldn’t be relying on Uncle Sam for handouts. Somehow, one class is seen as deserving, and the other isn’t. And because the tax credit is on the revenue side, it is mostly invisible, but the HUD budget needs to be approved every year, and each dollar is on the chopping block.
This same scenario repeats itself all around the globe – budgets invisibly benefit the wealthy, but expenditures to help the poorest of the poor are grudgingly, and inadequately given. As Zubo, a young adult living in the shacks in Soweto told me, all she wants is a safe, secure place where her parents won’t have to live with the cold in the winter – concerns we should all be able to understand. But Zubo and her family have now lived for generations in the shacks, just as poor Americans have struggled for years to rise out of poverty. And unfortunately our budgets show that we don’t care for families like Zubo’s as much as we do for our own. Click on the image to the right to watch my conversation with her.
A human rights budget is one that guarantees everyone can live with the same basic human dignity you would want your own family to be able to enjoy. This is our common challenge as we look ahead, and what I will be working for when I return home tomorrow.
-Eric Tars, Human Rights Program Director