New Book Looks at Economic Rights in U.S., Canada

By Sue Wuetcher

Release Date: February 3, 2006 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Although the United States and Canada both are large prosperous nations, the countries are not created equal when it comes to economic and other human rights, says Claude E. Welch, Jr., SUNY Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Political Science, College of Arts and Sciences, at the University at Buffalo.

Welch says he brought up these disparities during a 2001 telephone conversation with Canadian colleague Rhoda Howard-Hassman, Canada Research Chair in Global Studies and Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University. That conversation five years ago ultimately led to "Economic Rights in the United States and Canada," a book to be published this spring by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Welch says his telephone conversation with Howard-Hassman prompted him to ask her to be co-organizer with him of an economic rights conference held in October 2003 at UB and sponsored by the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy in the UB Law School. Scholars from across the globe attended and presented papers on a number of topics related to economic rights in the U.S. and Canada.

After the conference, Welch and Howard-Hassman obtained funding from the Baldy Center, UB's Canadian-American Studies Committee and the Canadian Embassy to organize the conference papers into a comparative study of the economic rights of the two countries. Among contributors to the forthcoming book are James B. Atleson, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the UB Law School, and Virginia Leary, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Emerita, also in the UB Law School, says Welch, who serves as co-editor with Howard-Hassman.

The book points out the disparities in economic rights -- and thus, Welch says, human rights -- between the two countries.

He calls the U.S. position on economic rights weak compared with that of Canada. While the U.S. has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights -- one of two United Nations documents created in 1966 that grew out of its 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights -- it has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

"Canada, by contrast, is an enthusiastic supporter of human rights -- in all aspects," says Welch.

U.S. refusal to accept the UN document is a "political hot potato," he notes. While legal and other scholars have spent a lot of time distinguishing between the various categories of human rights, "Human rights are a package," Welch insists. "Economic rights are part of human rights."

Economic rights, he explains, include the right to work and to favorable working conditions, the right to join trade unions, the right to adequate food and clothing, and the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

Nations that endorse these rights recognize that other human rights goals cannot be achieved without pursuing economic rights as well, he says.

He adds that one of the topics covered in the book that has seen a lot of attention recently is welfare racism.

"I think the revelations from the Superdome and Hurricane Katrina and the underside of New Orleans made it clear that a lot of American citizens have been overlooked in terms of economic rights," he says.

Welch points out that consciousness of welfare racism arose in the 1960s when court rulings against discrimination and increased awareness of neglected populations revealed that a staggering number of African-Americans were not receiving the same benefits as whites, resulting in an increase in the welfare rolls.

Despite the 40 years that have passed, there remains prejudice against people of color receiving welfare, Welch says, noting that Mary Bricker-Jenkins and Willie Baptist of the Philadelphia-based Kensington Welfare Rights Union wrote a chapter in the book on homelessness and the fight against race discrimination in welfare.

Welch says economic rights are an issue in United States now more than ever. In 1990, 20 percent of the poorest Americans received 4.6 percent of the national aggregate income, compared to 44.3 percent that went to the richest 20 percent, he says. In 2001, the gap widened as the poorest fifth received only 4.2 percent and the top fifth increased to 47.7 percent.

"In 2002, our poverty rate went way up," he adds, "and that's especially high in families headed by single women," many of who are black or Hispanic.

The disparity between the rich and the poor in Canada, on the other hand, is not as great, he says. In 2000, the top 10 percent earned 10 times as much as the bottom 10 percent in Canada, compared to the top 10 percent in the U.S., who earned 16 times more than the bottom 10 percent.

One of the greatest issues facing the U.S. in terms of economic rights is health care, according to Welch, who notes there are 45 million Americans without health coverage. "I think this is a place where we really stand apart from the social democracies and the developing countries of the world," he says.

Welch points to the influence of special interests and "a lack of commitment to the full range of human rights" as reasons for health care reform not catching on in the United States. The current system is inefficient as well, he says, noting the U.S. spends twice as much on health care as Canada, but fails to provide sufficient coverage to its citizens.

Nations can establish functional social democracies and maintain a capitalist system, he says, citing as examples such nations as Canada, Belgium, Germany and the Scandinavian countries.

Welch says he hopes "Economic Rights in Canada and the United States" will influence policy centers as well as political leaders, and broaden the outlook on human rights in the United States.

Moreover, as an educator, he hopes the book will help students realize the importance of economic and other human rights.