• Abigail L Terry

Hunger as a Human Rights Violation

Everyone knows the three basics for human survival are food, water, and shelter. But what if you were born into an environment where you weren’t confident in your access to one or all these things, how would that impact your life? Your decisions? With all of the other atrocities, epidemics, and disasters happening around the world is it easy to forget the most basic ones that happen right in your backyard.

When most people think of hunger and starvation, they don’t think of America. It doesn’t make sense for America, the ‘freest’ country in the world, to have any hungry citizens nevertheless a food insecurity epidemic, yet it does. Thirteen million kids, even kids who live in the richest countries in the nation, face regular food insecurity at rates as high as one in six. Thirteen percent of American citizens- 40 million people, thirteen million of them being children- live below the federal poverty line and are food insecure. Being food insecure does not necessarily mean starvation, it means not being confident or secure in your ability to regularly have access to food. Someone who is food insecure may have had a free or reduced price lunch at school but that is their only meal of the day, or they could be a single parent or a set of parents that sacrifices one or two of their three meals of the day to be able to give a meal to their children, or they could be an otherwise well-off family that had an accident, emergency or a death in the family that changes things for them financially. People who are food insecure are also often the disabled and the elderly.

In the late 40s after both world wars, just now concerned with securing the proper treatment of all people, the United Nations General Assembly drafted a relatively descriptive human rights document that was the first of its kind. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a comprehensive document with a set of articles that outlines particular rights, liberties, and protections for all people. This international document is used commonly now as a baseline or guideline for people to measure potential human rights violations up against. If we are to take the social epidemic of food insecurity and measure it against the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we can make a compelling argument that the lack of universal accessibility to food is a violation of basic human rights. For example, Article Three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Now, if we are to think of the literal, most basic meaning of the phrases “life, liberty, and security of person”, none of these things can be achieved without having access to food, it’s that simple. You obviously cannot live without eating regularly, and its common knowledge that poor nutrition at a young age can result in lifelong health detriments. Liberty is the ability to live freely and without restriction from your government on your way of life, but for those who seek nutritional assistance from the government to be able to simply live their life and get turned away because they fall pennies above the qualifying federal poverty line don’t experience this liberty. Security of person could be thought of as security of life, your confidence that you can keep on living because you know, at the very least, you have access to food. As discussed earlier, shelter, water, and food are the basic needs of humans for survival and if you are one of the all too common Americans who unfortunately don’t have access to food all the time then your days are filled with the preoccupation of securing those basic needs for yourself and your family.

Another example would be Article 5 that states no one shall experience “inhuman or degrading treatment” but it can be easily argued that those who find themselves in situations where they can’t feed themselves and can’t receive any or enough help are certainly being subjected to treatment that is degrading and inhumane. Having to tell your child’s night after night that they have no choice but to go to bed hungry, having to make less than five dollars of food assistance stretch into a nutritious meal for you family of four every night, making pennies more a month than the number that is described as needing food assistance and getting turned away from receiving benefits because of this but still being so low-income that you can’t regularly feed yourself or your children and are left with no options are all examples of scenarios that really happen in America that are nothing short of dehumanizing.

Those who do qualify for federal food assistance or food stamps, now known as SNAP, are subjects to many specific requirements to be able to keep getting these benefits. One of the most well-known and controversial of these requirements is the work requirement. The specifics of work requirements vary by state, but the general idea is that people who receive federal food assistance should be showing that they are trying to get a job or have a job and are working more hours in the hopes of eventually being able to leave the program because they can support themselves. Lawmakers eager to see the number of people on this program go down so they can stop allocating so much money into it instead of being eager to see the number of people on this program go down because they can actually support themselves, boost up these work requirements to really lofty goals. But this is a real problem for low income people and those on SNAP because more often than not, beneficiaries are already working as many hours as they can but it’s at a minimum wage job that’s not earning them enough or they are caregivers to someone in their household and cannot afford to hire a professional caregiver while they get a job that meets these work requirements or they are disabled or elderly or children and can’t find a job. So, if we look at Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it states “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude.” Upon first glance, relating this Article to SNAP work requirements may seem like a bit of a stretch but the reality is that because low-income people’s ability to eat (and therefore live) is reliant upon them fulfilling these work requirements, it’s really not that different from them being in servitude to the entity that allows them to live.

In the article State Repression and Political Order, the author Christian Davenport discusses state repression and its relation to civil unrest in great detail, saying simply that increases in repression from the state will result in increased years of civil unrest among its citizens. This certainly holds true in America in relation to food insecurity. If we think about crime rates, and the reasons people commit crimes, and the kind of people who commit crimes, it’s not hard to see the correlation between people who are food insecure and high crime rates. If for some reason or another you don’t qualify for federal food assistance and you’re working all of the hours you can for the best paying job that you can get and you’re a single parent and have children to feed, it’s not hard to imagine how you might feel like you have no other options than to commit a crime and to get some kind of income to be able to put food on the table for yourself and your loved ones. If the government is not providing ample resources for people who need them- all people who need them- then people will take their survival into their own hands and do things that they may not have otherwise done if they were given the assistance they need to make ends meet.

Hunger may not be the sexiest or most exciting of the human rights violations, but it can certainly be argued that it’s one of the most overlooked ones. Especially in America because the SNAP system exists and boats being the richest, freest, and most powerful nation in the world people assume that everyone is getting everything they need but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Perhaps if the hunger epidemic was re-evaluated through a human rights lens than maybe lawmakers would be more motivated it to remedy the flaws in food assistance systems and make sure every American young and old, low and high income, able-bodied and otherwise, doesn’t go hungry.


Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (2018, March 01). Making SNAP Work Requirements Harsher Will Not Improve Outcomes for Low-Income People. Retrieved October 27, 2019, from https://www.cbpp.org/research/food- assistance/making-snap-work-requirements-harsher-will-not-improve-outcomes-for- low

Davenport, C. (2007). State Repression and Political Order (Rep.). Binghamton, NY: Annual Reviews of Political Science.

No Kid Hungry. (2017). Who We Are - Hunger Facts. Retrieved October 26, 2019, from https://www.nokidhungry.org/who-we-are/hunger-facts

United Nations General Assembly. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights gg (Publication). Retrieved October 27, 2019, from United Nations website.

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