These material and tangible rights would mark a notable departure from the more abstract rights currently enshrined, like freedom of assembly and petition.
In 1941, just after the Great Depression and at the dawn of American involvement in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered an iconic speech to Congress in which he advocated a U.S. — and a world — premised upon “four freedoms.” The first two are established in the Constitution: freedom of speech / expression and freedom of religion, both in the First Amendment.
The other two were not in the Constitution directly: “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear.” While were never taken up as constitutional amendments in Roosevelt’s own time, now some members of Congress want to enshrine his “freedom from want” principle into law.
In particular, they say some of the biggest “wants” in modern American society include health insurance (the uninsured rate was 13.7 percent in 2018) and housing (more than half a million Americans are homeless).
What the constitutional amendment does
A proposed constitutional amendment would guarantee four more rights in the nation’s governing document: “affordable housing, cost-effective health care, quality education, and adequate nutrition.”
Notably, the constitutional amendment’s text would clarify that neither the U.S. nor an individual state can deny or abridge those four rights. That’s notable because most constitutional amendments throughout history, including all 10 in the Bill of Rights, originally applied explicitly to the federal government only. So while the First Amendment’s actual text said the federal government couldn’t abridge somebody’s right to freedom of religion or the press, a state still could.
Starting in the late 19th century, the Supreme Court “incorporated” most (but not all) rights in the Constitution to also apply to the states. In recent years, that’s included a 2010 case which did so for the Second Amendment and a 2019 case doing so for the prohibition against excessive fines in the Eighth Amendment. This proposal leaves nothing to chance, spelling out the ban against either a federal or a state government violating those four rights.
What supporters say
Supporters argue that the Constitution shouldn’t just guarantee rights but also guarantee certain results, because existing constitutional rights such as freedom of the press mean little to somebody who’s homeless or starving or without health insurance.
“If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that we’ve failed at guaranteeing basic security and human dignity for our most vulnerable neighbors,” Rep. Adams said in a press release. “It is long past time for us to breathe new life into our Constitution, and recognize that true liberty not only means freedom from tyranny and oppression, but also freedom from the burden of poverty and centuries of structural racism and inequality. Our common humanity requires us to act on behalf of the dignity, health, and safety of all Americans.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the constitutional amendment, while well-intentioned, would bankrupt the country. Even Vermont, one of the most left-leaning states in the country, abandoned its attempt at building the first statewide single-payer healthcare system in 2014 because of cost overruns.
Opponents also counter that the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled against the existence of such “affirmative rights” for material goods provided by the government. The Court ruled against a fundamental right to housing in 1972’s Lindsey v. Normet, against a fundamental right to education in 1973’s San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, and against a fundamental right to medical care in 1980’s Harris v. McRae.
(Then again, the reason this proposal is being introduced as a constitutional amendment, rather than as a bill, is to change those rights’ current unconstitutional statuses.)
Odds of passage
Rep. Adams introduced a previous version of the constitutional amendment in 2019. It attracted three cosponsors, all Democrats. It never received a vote in the House Judiciary Committee, although the chamber was controlled by Democrats at the time.
The current version has attracted two cosponsors, both Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Judiciary Committee.
To become enacted, a constitutional amendment must pass two-thirds of both the House and Senate, plus get ratified by three-quarters of state legislatures. While Democrats possess control of both the House and Senate, that majority is less than two-thirds — while Republicans control a majority of state legislatures.