Reframing poverty as a human rights issue to maintain government assistance

The Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) reframes the welfare debate as part of a larger fight for human rights in order to advocate for the maintenance of welfare services.

In 1991, welfare cuts threatened the livelihoods of poor families and communities in the most impoverished district of Pennsylvania. A group of women from this area came together and organized KWRU in order to present welfare as a human rights issue, rather than an issue of personal responsibility for poverty or charity-based government responses.

KWRU framed the welfare cuts as a violation of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Sections 23 and 25, which guarantee the right to a job and the right to an adequate standard of living. The United States is a party to the UDHR, so it is expected to follow the human rights guidelines therein. By presenting poverty and welfare as human rights issues, KWRU took the position that the government has an obligation to meet the basic human needs of those living in poverty under international human rights standards. This viewpoint stands in contrast to the idea that providing welfare or not is a choice a government can make based on their policies and the economic situation. Rather, KWRU argued that providing welfare is necessary according to the UDHR.

In order to educate, mobilize, and organize other people living in poverty to fight for their rights, KWRU set up physical sites where they could provide people with food and housing assistance, including a tent city and a medical clinic. This was a way for them to both help the community and have regular contact with those living in poverty, which could otherwise be difficult. KWRU developed teams of involved community members. These organizers used their experience to figure out what tactics could move people living in poverty to act in support of KWRU’s advocacy.

One project that KWRU carried out was a month-long cross-country bus tour. In 1998, poor families from all over the United States traveled by bus to thirty-five poor communities, both in urban and rural areas. Along the way, they gathered detailed stories of people’s struggles for survival in situations of poverty. They used these stories to document economic human rights violations in the United States. After the journey, they released the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Report.

With the help of the Center for Constitutional Rights, CUNY’s International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic, and other organizations, KWUR filed a petition in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights charging the United States government with violations of economic rights. This legal effort fueled a massive human rights organizing drive that culminated in the “March of the Americas” in December 1999. Organizations of the poor and homeless from across the United States marched to the United Nations headquarters in Washington, D.C. to protest economic rights violations. The filing of the petition and the march drew press and public attention at the national and international levels to the continued existence and persistence of poverty in the United States.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

KWRU succeeded at mobilizing a difficult-to-organize population, the poor and homeless, by meeting them where they were and providing services. The services were important because they attracted those needing them, and because they proved that KWRU was actually interested in improving the lives of the poor and homeless when the United States government was not. Once KWRU developed contact with these populations, the organization was able to begin its advocacy. It was helpful that KWRU itself was an organization composed of people living in poverty, which lent them legitimacy. Other organizations can draw from this tactic by remembering that people—especially those in difficult situations—will most likely not have the time to go out of their way to get involved in advocacy. To reach them, an organization must meet them where they are. In addition, an organization can gain legitimacy by including members from the community it is trying to help. This is particularly important in populations that may be distrustful of outsiders, but it can be useful in many circumstances.