The UN Special Rapporteur Investigation into Extreme Poverty in the U.S.
From December 1 through 15, 2017, UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston carried out a visit to the United States on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council. The purpose was to look into how the country’s programs are addressing serious poverty in the U.S. and to what degree they are consistent with its human rights obligations. Trillions covered Alston's initial statement regarding his study back in the January 2018 issue.
Following is a summary of the full report he delivered after his investigation.
Read on with a warning: what Alston found is not pretty and may come as a shock to some Americans.
The What, Where and Why of the Investigation
Under Human Rights Council resolution 35/19, the UN has an obligation to monitor and follow up on Human Rights programs for its members. Though the United States has since withdrawn from the Council for other reasons, the investigation was conducted while it was still a part of it. The purpose of this one was to understand and evaluate U.S. policies and methods of handling extreme poverty in the country, and then to assess how that work fared with respect to basic human rights considerations. He also was charged with determining how well the U.S. was “living up to its international obligations”.
For the investigation, UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston was sent to the United States. Before he left, he received 40 different written submissions in response to questions sent out in advance. As part of his visit, he met with government representatives from the federal all the way down to the city levels, members of Congress, academics, and people living in poverty. He traveled to San Francisco and Los Angeles in California, Lowndes County and Montgomery in Alabama, Atlanta, Georgia, San Juan, Guayama and Salina in Puerto Rico (which is even now still dealing with last fall’s hurricane disaster), Charleston, West Virginia and the city of Washington, D.C.
State of the Union
The U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with advanced technology, excellent higher education and some of the most successful corporations whose leadership dominates their industries. Yet, as Alston says in his report:
“Its immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live. About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty.! It has the highest youth poverty rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the highest infant mortality rates among comparable OECD States. Its citizens live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies, eradicable tropical diseases are increasingly prevalent, and it has the world’s highest incarceration rate, one of the lowest levels of voter registrations in among OECD countries and the highest obesity levels in the developed world.”
The U.S. is also a country which Alston points out has “the highest rate of income inequality of all Western countries”. On several counts, it is among the worst in the world with respect to poverty, with the Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty noting that it is “18th out of 21 wealthy countries in terms of labor markets, poverty rates, safety, wealth inequality and economic mobility.” It further chastises the U.S. for being a country whose approach to dealing with poverty “for almost five decades has been neglectful at best”. In the past year, Trump’s first in office, it says that the policies “seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship.”
In his damning summary of what the Trump administration has put in place, Alston says the!new!policies: (a) provide unprecedentedly high tax breaks and windfalls to the very wealthy and! largest corporations; (b) pay for these partly by reducing welfare benefits for the poor;
(c) undertake a radical program of financial, environmental, health and safety deregulation that eliminates protections mainly benefiting the middle classes and the poor;
(d) seek to add over 20 million poor and middleclass persons to the ranks of those without health insurance;
(e) restrict eligibility for many welfare benefits while increasing the obstacles required to be overcome by those eligible; (f) dramatically increase spending on defense, while rejecting requested improvements in key veterans’ benefits;
(g) do not provide adequate additional funding to address an opioid crisis that is decimating parts of the country; and
(h) make no effort to tackle the structural racism that keeps a large percentage of non-whites in poverty and near poverty.”
Alston reinforced his points by also noting that the U.s.-based International Monetary Fund’s own 2017 report on the U.S. said that the current economy “is delivering better living standards for only the few”, and that “household incomes are stagnating for a large share of the population, job opportunities are deteriorating, prospects for upward mobility are waning, and economic gains are increasingly accruing to those that are already wealthy”.
The UN Special Rapporteur goes on to say that income inequality will be made even worse by the current tax cuts, which will “ensure that the United States remains the most unequal society in the developed world.” That inequality is further likely to stay that way as new technologies enable “automatic robotization” which will further damage employment prospects for the poor. It is also pointed out that even if opportunities might be available, “The United States now has the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility of any of the rich countries”. For the U.S., all this is ensuring “that the American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion”.
This situation and the country’s policies have produced a state of poverty unrivaled among the wealth countries. Based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s own “supplemental poverty measure”, in 2016 14% of Americans were living in poverty. California, known for its extreme wealth and as a land of innovation and creativity, has the highest poverty rate among all the states, with 20.6% of its residents falling into that category. This is despite that, given the country’s massive wealth, if the political and social will were there the U.S. could get very close to eliminating poverty completely, according to Alston.
The U.S. and Human Rights
The U.S. Believes in Denying Many Fundamental Human Rights
Regarding Human Rights, the U.S. says other countries must respect some of the treaties it has ratified, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Racial Discrimination and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Such rights laws, according to Alston, generally recognize “a right to education, a right to health care, a right to social protection for those in need and a right to an adequate standard of living”. Yet once again when it comes to practice, the U.S. solidly stands against those principals. Alston goes on to say that “the United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that, while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable health care or growing up in a context of total deprivation”.
Human Rights and Democracy
Another human right called out in article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It calls for “the principal of one person, one vote”. The report points out that while this may be the theory, the reality is getting worse every day in the United States.
Part of why is, according to Alston, there is “overt disenfranchisement of more than 6 million felons and ex-felons, which predominantly affects Black citizens since they are the ones whose conduct is often specifically targeted for criminalization”. Even when released from prison and eligible to vote yet again, “nine states currently condition the restoration of the right to vote after prison on the payment of outstanding fines and fees”. Since that was often hard to do before the incarceration, it is close to impossible after incarceration, since being an ex-felon is still a major blocking consideration for future employment of any kind. As a result, all felons and many ex-felons cannot vote. They then become separated from being able to vote for change of any kind.
Alston also calls attention to the unique case of Puerto Rico. It is not a state but instead only a territory of the country. While it is otherwise subject to taxation and most other laws of the United States, Puerto Rico has “no representative with full voting rights in Congress and cannot vote in Presidential elections”. This locks out more than 3 million people living there who cannot help directly influence their federal future through the process of voting.
Then there is covert disenfranchisement, which appears in the U.S. in many forms. It includes, as Alston called attention to:
• Gerrymandering of electoral districts to benefit specific groups of voters and lock out others. This was even supported by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision which refused to rule on the legality of the process.
• The use of “artificial and unnecessary voter identification requirements, the blatant manipulation of polling station locations, the relocation of Department of Motor Vehicles’ offices to make it more difficult for certain groups to obtain identification, and the general ramping up of obstacles to voting, especially for those without resources”.
Beyond these issues are other forms of covert voter disenfranchisement in the political process which Alston did not list but surely ran into along the way. They include:
• The substantial increase in the percentage of campaign contributions coming from Corporations and related organizations over time. That is a direct result of the notorious U.S. Supreme Court “Citizens United” case, which gave corporations much of the same rights as citizens on the Constitutional grounds of “free speech”.
• The over-representation of the wealthy among those that participate in the vote, in part because of the disenfranchisement of the poor through both covert and overt means.
• The impact of corporate lobbying in government from the federal levels all the way down to local. Such influence, in money and in regular presence in federal and local legislatures, has created a new sort of “elected elite” who thrive on these quite legal means of bribery. This has been made worse in recent recent years by the emergence of organizations such as the American Legislation Exchange Council, a group paid for and run by corporate representatives to ensure the enactment of laws favorable to them particularly throughout the states. (See “The Corporate Conspiracy That’s Really Running the United States”, published at Trillions.biz on July 13, 2017.)
The Disintegration of the U.S. Social Safety Nets and The Impact on Poverty
False Policy Beliefs Guide The Nation
While there have been some successes in dealing with poverty, the U.S. stubbornly sticks to certain policy positions which are both factually wrong and wrongminded.
One such policy concept is that if the poor really wanted to work, there are plenty of jobs available to them to apply for and get. As Alston describes this, “The assumption, especially in a thriving economy, is that there are a great many jobs out there waiting to be filled by individuals with low educational
qualifications, often with disabilities of one kind or another, sometimes burdened with a criminal record (often poverty related), without meaningful access to health care, and with no training or effective assistance to obtain employment”. Alston says the reality is “the job market for such people is extraordinarily limited, and even more so for those without basic forms of social protection and support”. He also points out that “Despite the strong economy, there has been a longterm decline in employment rates”.
Those rates will be dropping further as advanced technologies lead to robotization of more jobs once done by human beings. That, rather than intense overseas competition, despite the pleadings of the Trump administration, are largely behind the overall decline in employment in industries such as auto production.
Another policy concept that damages social protections in the United States involves continued complaints about welfare fraud and its repercussions. Alston writes that, “Government officials warned the Special Rapporteur that individuals are constantly coming up with new schemes to live high on the welfare hog, and that individual states are gaming the welfare system to cheat the federal Government.” The truth is that, as Alston notes, “there are good and bad corporate actors and there are good and bad welfare claimants”. Yet, as Alston goes on:
“In the tax context, immense faith is placed in the goodwill and altruism of the corporate beneficiaries, while with welfare reform the opposite assumptions apply… But while funding for the Internal Revenue Service to audit wealthy taxpayers has been reduced, efforts to identify welfare fraud are being greatly intensified. Revelations of widespread tax avoidance by companies and high-wealth individuals draw no rebuke, only acquiescence and the maintenance of the loopholes and other arrangements designed to facilitate such arrangements. But revelations of food stamps being used for purposes other than staying alive draw howls of outrage from government officials and their media supporters.”
Despite those warnings, the evidence of fraud on behalf of welfare recipients in the U.S. is noticeably lacking. Alston reports that, “A 2016 Government Accountability Office report showed an error rate in 2015 of 3.66 per cent for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and 4.01 per cent for public housing and rental assistance. By contrast, the error rate for travel pay by the Department of Defense was 8 per cent.” The Department of Defense fraud reporting rate tends not to come up in governmental complaints, despite the immense savings which might be produced by cracking down in this area. Alston notes further that most payment errors to welfare recipients “result from mistakes by different parties, rather than from dishonesty or fraud by recipients”.
Children Are Falling Further Behind in Terms of Social Protections
While the national poverty rate in the United States was 14% in 2016, children are in far more serious shape. 18 percent of children were living in poverty in that year, with children representing 32.6 percent of all people in poverty. As further statistics of note, Alston reports that “About 20 per cent of children live in relative income poverty, compared to the OECD average of 13 per cent.” He goes on to say that, “Contrary to stereotypical assumptions, 31 per cent of poor children are White, 24 per cent are Black, 36 per cent are Hispanic and 1 per cent are indigenous.! This is consistent with the fact that the United States ranks 25th out of 29 industrialized nations in investing in early childhood education.”
Homelessness is also a problem disproportionately affecting the young. According to another recent study, in 2017 on any given night around 21% of those who are homeless were children. Even that disheartening number may be an undercount, since it does not include children temporarily staying with friends, families or motels. An additional sad statistic is the high rate of homeless among students, which the Department of Education reported at 1,304,803 for the 2015/16 school year. Homelessness affects health, socialization, how a child thinks of him or herself, the ability to study, exposure to assault and other crimes, and medical problems.
Even though U.S. healthcare may be some of the best in the world, the infant mortality rate in the country is shameful. At 5.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, it is almost 50 percent higher than the OECD average of 3.9. The expansion of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program had previously been a rare positive event in government policy. It had brought the percentage of children with health insurance to 95%. That will start ratcheting down rapidly soon, thanks to the latest Federal law which just slashed 50% of the budget for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Federal law changes will also soon have an impact on families and nutrition. As Alton says in his commentary, “the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] kept 3.8 million children out of poverty in 2015,!and in 2016, the earned income tax credit and
the child tax credit lifted a further 4.7 million children out of poverty”. That is expected to drop as the federal government cuts funding to these programs based on the false assumptions about welfare fraud described earlier, and the need to pay for the tax cuts primarily benefiting the wealthy and corporations.
The Role of Criminalization in Concealing Underlying Poverty Problems
According to Alston, one of the ways governments hide the reality of homelessness is by disproportionately cracking down on homeless people as rule-breakers. This ends up labeling them as criminals rather than homeless. The laws under which these groups are arrested and prosecuted include “Sleeping rough, sitting in public places, panhandling, public urination and myriad other offences … devised to attack the ‘blight’ of homelessness”. The public urination aspect is especially laughable as an offense, especially since many cities have no public toilets. As Alston accurately reports, in Los Angeles’ Skid Row area in 2017, there were an estimated 1,800 homeless people. They had access to only nine public toilets. That number was so low that “Los Angeles failed to meet even the minimum standards the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees sets for refugee camps in the Syrian Arab Republic and other emergency situations”. As the over-regulation of the homeless continues and no other solutions are put in place, lawbreaking becomes a matter of life for the homeless. These start with “infraction notices for the homeless, which rapidly turn into misdemeanors, leading to warrants, incarceration, unpayable fines and the stigma of a criminal conviction that in turn virtually prevents subsequent employment and access to most housing.” The “vicious circle” that this creates puts additional pressure on the homeless. “On Skid Row in Los Angeles, 14,000 homeless persons were arrested in 2016 alone, an increase of 31 per cent over 2011, while overall arrests in the city decreased by 15 per cent”.
Those who are poor also represent a much higher percentage of those arrested in general. Alston blames it on a situation that in many counties and cities, “the criminal justice system is effectively a system for keeping the poor in poverty while generating revenue to fund not only the justice system but many other programs”. As examples of how this works, the report goes on to say that, “So-called fines and fees are piled up so that low level infractions become immensely burdensome, a process that affects only the poorest members of society, who pay the vast majority of such penalties.”
Another saddening trend is judges “increasingly [setting] large bail amounts, which means that poor defendants are likely to stay in jail, with severe consequences such as loss of jobs, disruption of childcare, inability to pay rent and deeper destitution”. This persists despite the declared presumption of innocence for all, and the low likelihood that the poor – of all people – are the least likely to be a “flight risk”, one of the most common reasons for demanding bail in the first place.
Discrimination, Social Exclusion and Poverty Race
Despite 50 years since the signing of the Civil Rights Act under President Johnson, the United States is still “chronically segregated”, according to Alston. As he says about the situation:
Blacks are 2.5 times more likely than Whites to be living in poverty, their infant mortality rate is 2.3 times that of Whites, their unemployment rate is more than double that for Whites, they typically earn only 82.5 cents for every dollar earned by a White counterpart, their household earnings are on average well under two thirds of those of their White equivalents, and their incarceration rates are 6.4 times higher than those of Whites. These shameful statistics can only be explained by long-standing structural discrimination on the basis of race, reflecting the enduring legacy of slavery.”
Women are also still discriminated against in many places in the U.S., with poor women among the worst treated in society.
Alston notes about this that: “Poor pregnant women who seek Medicaid prenatal care are subjected to interrogations of a highly sensitive and personal nature, effectively surrendering their privacy rights. Low-income women who would like to exercise their constitutional, privacy-derived right to access abortion services face legal and practical obstacles, such as mandatory waiting periods and long driving distances to clinics. This lack of access to abortion services traps many women in cycles of poverty. When a child is born to a woman living in poverty, that woman is more likely to be investigated by the child welfare system and have her child taken away from her. Poverty is frequently treated as a form of “child neglect” and thus as cause to remove a child from the home, a risk exacerbated by the fact that some states do not provide legal aid in child welfare proceedings.” This discrimination continues in almost every aspect of life for women who are poor. They often have the worst access to healthcare and other benefits. Multiply that discrimination by the race factor and one finds even worse scenarios As the UN report continues, “Black women with cervical cancer — a disease that can easily be prevented or cured — have lower survival rates than White women, due to later diagnosis and treatment differences, owing to a lack of health insurance and regular access to health care. The United States has the highest maternal mortality ratio among wealthy countries, and black women are three to four times more likely to die than White women. In one city, the rate for Blacks was 12 times higher than that for Whites.”
The indigenous peoples also “suffer disproportionately from multidimensional poverty and social inclusion”. As just one example, 26.2 percent of American Indians and Alaska Native peoples fell below the poverty line. That is the highest rate of poverty for all ethnic groups in the United States.
Indigenous people also have the highest unemployment rate, at 12% in 2016 compared to a U.S. average of 5.8 percent. A staggering “one in four indigenous young people aged 16 to 24 are neither enrolled in school nor working”.
Health also suffers for the indigenous groups. Native Americans and Alaska Natives have an almost 50% higher death rate than for non-hispanic White people. Illnesses such as heart disease, chronic liver disease, diabetes and cancer are major contributors.
Counterproductive Drug Policies and the Poor
As the opioid crisis has grown to epidemic proportions across the U.S., the poor in general have suffered worse as a result. Instead of helping the poor with this, the government has instead “mounted concerted campaigns to reduce and restrict access to heath care by the poorer members of the population”.
The drug policies in many areas also continue with the process of criminalizing those most in need, just as was described earlier for the case of the homeless. For welfare recipients, there are increasing demands by state to impose drug tests before one can receive aid. There are also often “severe punishments for pregnant women who abuse drugs”, despite medical professionals knowing that “such policies are counterproductive, highly intrusive and misplaced”.
Exposure to Environmental Pollution
Unlike the wealthy, the poor have far less choice as to where they live. Where they often end up as a result are often located closest to polluting industry. As explained in the report, these companies “pose and imminent and persistent threat to their human right to health”. It goes on to say that “poor communities benefit very little from these industries, which they effectively subsidize because of the low tax rates offered by local governments to the relevant corporations.”
The poor also suffer in significant ways from exposure to coal ash. That residue, the toxic residue left from coal burning in power plants, contains chemicals known to cause cancer, reproductive problems, and developmental disorders. Coal ash is present in an estimated 1,400 sites around the country. 70 percent of those sites also happen to be in low-income communities.
The poor have an additional disadvantage in that often they have the worst access to public sewers and water supplies. That creates additional health problems which only aggravate their condition further.
Recommendations Offered by the Report
The U.S.’S enormous poverty problem is made even worse by false policy beliefs such as those about welfare cheats described earlier, discrimination, and multiple levels of government who believe the rich and corporations should benefit first from U.S. support.
As to recommendations to ease U.S. poverty, Alston recommends:
Decriminalize poverty and what happens because of it. This just creates a self-feeding vicious cycle which gets worse every year.
Improve social protections for all, including for those who for one reason or another are temporarily unable to work the opportunity to return to the workforce.
Recognize that the American middle class is often affected almost as much by bad public policy towards the poor as the poor itself. As Alston points out, “Almost a quarter of full-time workers, and three quarters of part-time workers, receive no paid sick leave. Absence from work due to illness thus poses a risk of economic disaster.” He goes on to point out that “About 44 percent of adults either could not cover an emergency expense costing $400 or would need to sell something or borrow money to do it.” Acknowledge and deal with the disastrous consequences of extreme inequality. With tax rates favoring the rich, job losses across-the-board for the middle class and the poor, and minimum wages remaining either flat or driving down, income inequality in the U.S. is bad and getting worse dayby-day. With the older, white and wealthy classes dominating corporations and public governance, those responsible for such policy-making are also getting further away from the realities of the situation. That is part of why they continue to parrot endlessly stories like the poor wanting to take welfare rather than work.
Change tax policy so it redistributes a major part of income to those most in need. This is going to take some doing, since, as Alston points out “the demonization of taxation means that legislatures effectively refuse to levy taxes even when there is a desperate need”.
Recognize that access to health care must be part of basic human rights in the U.S. This is behind the guiding principles of many other wealthy nations. Yet the U.S. is way behind the rest of the world on this – and getting farther behind every year.
Under the current package of governmental representatives, policy guidance from the top of the Trump administration, a social fabric that favors discrimination against the poor, and laws that allow corporations and the wealthy to control most everything, most of these recommendations have little chance of seeing even a hearing in Congress or at the state legislatures. It may require something more to cause a radical shift in policy. Perhaps an economic crisis worse than that of the Great Depression, a global pandemic, or the outbreak of a devasting global war would shake the rafters at the top.
Some Americans are indeed trying to band together and solve some of these problems but more people are needed to make a real difference.
The AMERO people's digital currency presents one good solution and it is slowly starting to make a difference with grants to key programs, but more people need to accept and support it as a solution.