Washington, DC, December 20, 2021 – The Build Back Better Act would bring the United States closer to meeting international human rights standards and begin to repair a badly broken social safety net, Human Rights Watch said today. The Senate should strengthen components of the bill and promptly pass this legislation, or lose a critical chance to build a rights-respecting economy.

The bill, a major component of President Joe Biden’s social policy, passed the US House of Representatives on November 19, 2021 and is pending before the US Senate. It would dedicate $1.7 trillion over 10 years to critical social programs that would significantly advance multiple human rights. They include the rights to social security, an adequate standard of living, housing, sanitation, and water, as well as the rights of children, older people, people with disabilities, and workers. A previous version of the bill had allocated $3.5 trillion to these programs over 10 years, but its size was reduced during negotiations.

“The Build Back Better Act could help reverse decades of underinvestment in social protection – from health and childcare to labor protections and affordable housing, which has created serious deficits in the US social safety net,” said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The US has long accepted widespread poverty and restricted access to basic benefits, but this bill could be pivotal break with this approach in favor of protecting people’s economic and social rights.”

Human Rights Watch analyzed the bill and examined how key investments in social protection and the right to social security would also improve other human rights. The bill includes investments that could have positive human rights impacts in multiple areas. These international human rights standards and corresponding investments are summarized as follows.

Children’s right to an adequate standard of living and to education:

  • $400 billion for free universal preschool
  • $200 billion for child tax credits
  • $100 billion for childcare expansion

Right to a healthy environment:

  • $555 billion to fight climate change

Right to adequate housing:

  • $150 billion for affordable housing

Right to the highest attainable standard of health:

  • $165 billion on health care spending
  • Expanded scope and scale of subsidies for health insurance plans purchased through the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace
  • Authorization for Medicare to negotiate the prices it pays for certain prescription drugs

Rights of older people and people with disabilities:

  • $150 billion for improved access to home- and community-based services (HCBS)

Rights to water and sanitation:

  • $225 million for low-income household water assistance

Workers’ rights to safe working conditions, living wages, and freedom of association:

  • Increased penalties for minimum wage and workplace safety violations, as well as violations of workers’ rights to organize and join unions.
  • Measures to improve wages and working conditions for HCBS direct care workers

Right to paid leave:

  • $200 billion for four weeks of paid leave

Public social spending is critical to combating poverty and reducing inequality. Before the coronavirus pandemic, in 2019, social expenditures in the US were about 18.7 percent of GDP, below many other high-income economies. Spending in the US was particularly low on benefits for those who are unemployed or have a disability, illness, or occupational injury, as well as on family benefits including financial support for families and children. Of 37 countries with available data on spending on unemployment, the US ranks last but one, just above Chile. In addition to low spending, social programs in the US are often very narrowly targeted and, historically, have utilized exclusionary eligibility criteria.

To illustrate these disparities, Human Rights Watch analyzed data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of high-income countries, and found that comparatively low social spending and tax rates make the US the sixth least redistributive of 32 OECD member states with available information, referring to measures which reduce inequality, and less redistributive than all of its peer countries in the OECD from North America and the European Union. This contributes to persistently high poverty and income and wealth inequality. This also harms communities already marginalized by other forms of oppression and discrimination, including based on race, ethnicity, and gender.

The Covid-19 pandemic placed the inadequate social protection system and structural racism in the US into stark relief, with low-income people especially likely to face housing and food insecurity and Black and brown people more likely to suffer illness and death. The crisis triggered the largest expansion of the safety net in decades, with stimulus checks, increased child benefits, and expanded unemployment insurance preventing millions of people from falling into poverty. But these pandemic relief measures were temporary. In some cases, implementation has been slow, and many of the programs have concluded or lack sufficient funds to meet needs.

The Build Back Better Act would extend some pandemic-related provisions and introduce additional programs, substantially expanding social protection and providing a step toward a more equitable economy, Human Rights Watch said. However, at around 0.6 percent of estimated US GDP, the funding provided would only increase public social spending by a modest 3.2 percent, still inadequate to fully protect human rights.

“The US has to do more to create a social safety net that protects human rights and advances equity, while reducing poverty and inequality,” Ganesan said. “The Build Back Better Act is a start, but far more investment is required to build an economy in which basic rights are genuinely respected.”

For a more detailed analysis of the bill, please see below.

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Poverty and Inequality, please visit:  

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