Originally from Australia, New York University School of Law Professor Philip Alston specializes in international law and heads the law school’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, and since 2014 he has been the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. In mid-December he released a report on poverty and human rights here in the United States prepared at the invitation of the Trump administration and with the assistance of state and federal officials, independent experts, and people dealing personally with poverty. It’s worth a read.
Alston prepared the report over a two-week trip to California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington DC, though of course he’s already very familiar with the country. He started his academic career at Tufts and Harvard in the 1980s and having lived and worked in the U.S. since 2001.
He expresses concern about the present direction of the country, which he sees as likely leading to increased inequality, already high, thanks to tax cuts for the rich and cuts to the social safety nets favored by the administration and its congressional allies, but he also notes that many states, municipalities, and private organizations are trying to help the very poor. He also notes a number of paradoxes.
For example, “US health care expenditures per capita are double the US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world.” (OECD refers to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group of 37 wealthy countries.) In addition,
- Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy, and the ‘health gap’ between the U.S. and its peer countries continues to grow
- U.S. inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries.
- Neglected tropical diseases, including Zika, are increasingly common in the USA. It has been estimated that 12 million Americans live with a neglected parasitic infection. A 2017 report documents the prevalence of hookworm in Lowndes County, Alabama.
- The US has the highest prevalence of obesity in the developed world.
- In terms of access to water and sanitation the US ranks 36th in the world.
- America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of Turkmenistan, El Salvador, Cuba, Thailand and the Russian Federation. Its rate is nearly 5 times the OECD average.
- The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the OECD with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to less than 14% across the OECD.
- The Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty ranks the most well-off countries in terms of labor markets, poverty, safety net, wealth inequality, and economic mobility. The US comes in last of the top 10 most well-off countries, and 18th amongst the top 21.
- In the OECD the US ranks 35th out of 37 in terms of poverty and inequality.
- The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality characterizes the US as “a clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league.” US child poverty rates are the highest amongst the six richest countries – Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Norway.
- About 55.7% of the U.S. voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. In the OECD, the U.S. placed 28th in voter turnout, compared with an OECD average of 75%. Registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the U.S. than just about any other OECD country. Only about 64% of the U.S. voting-age population (and 70% of voting-age citizens) was registered in 2016, compared with 91% in Canada (2015) and the UK (2016), 96% in Sweden (2014), and nearly 99% in Japan (2014).
I have been struck by the extent to which caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between rich and poor have been sold to the electorate by some politicians and media, and have been allowed to define the debate. The rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic, and the drivers of economic success. The poor are wasters, losers, and scammers. As a result, money spent on welfare is money down the drain. To complete the picture we are also told that the poor who want to make it in America can easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough.
The reality that I have seen, however, is very different. It is a fact that many of the wealthiest citizens do not pay taxes at the rates that others do, hoard much of their wealth off-shore, and often make their profits purely from speculation rather than contributing to the overall wealth of the American community. Who then are the poor? Racist stereotypes are usually not far beneath the surface. The poor are overwhelmingly assumed to be people of color, whether African Americans or Hispanic ‘immigrants’. The reality is that there are 8 million more poor Whites than there are Blacks. Similarly, large numbers of welfare recipients are assumed to be living high on the hog. Some politicians and political appointees with whom I spoke were completely sold on the narrative of such scammers sitting on comfortable sofas, watching color TVs, while surfing on their smart phones, all paid for by welfare. I wonder how many of these politicians have ever visited poor areas, let alone spoken to those who dwell there. There are anecdotes aplenty, but evidence is nowhere to be seen. In every society, there are those who abuse the system, as much in the upper income levels, as in the lower. But the poor people I met from among the 40 million living in poverty were overwhelmingly either persons who had been born into poverty, or those who had been thrust there by circumstances largely beyond their control such as physical or mental disabilities, divorce, family breakdown, illness, old age, unlivable wages, or discrimination in the job market.
Based on figures from the Census Bureau, Alston writes, “In September 2017, more than one in every eight Americans were living in poverty (40 million, equal to 12.7% of the population). And almost half of those (18.5 million) were living in deep poverty, with reported family income below one-half of the poverty threshold.”
The report touches on a wide range of subjects, including race, gender, disability, job availability, the opioid epidemic, obstacles to voting, welfare reform, difficulties in securing medical and especially dental care, and government policies, such as those in some areas that pile interest and penalties on those with too little money to pay minor traffic fines and the like immediately, which means that the poor end up paying much bigger fines than the rich for the same offenses.