UN Ex­poses Ris­ing In­equal­ity in Amer­ica

Trillions - - In This Issue -

The fol­low­ing is a re­port by Pro­fes­sor Philip G. Al­ston, United Na­tions Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on ex­treme poverty and hu­man rights. Pro­fes­sor Al­ston also teaches in­ter­na­tional law, in­ter­na­tional crim­i­nal law, and a range of hu­man rights sub­jects at New York Univer­sity and trav­els the world study­ing and re­port­ing on poverty for the United Na­tions. He is con­sid­ered to be one of the world's lead­ing ex­perts on poverty.

He re­cently toured the U.S. to study the ac­tual con­di­tions of poverty that many Amer­i­cans face and which vastly more are likely to face in the fu­ture. Fol­low­ing is his full re­port. State­ment on Visit to the USA, by Pro­fes­sor Philip Al­ston, United Na­tions Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on ex­treme poverty and hu­man rights*

I. In­tro­duc­tion

I have spent the past two weeks vis­it­ing the United States, at the in­vi­ta­tion of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, to look at whether the per­sis­tence of ex­treme poverty in Amer­ica un­der­mines the en­joy­ment of hu­man rights by its cit­i­zens. In my trav­els through Cal­i­for­nia, Alabama, Ge­or­gia, Puerto Rico, West Vir­ginia, and Wash­ing­ton DC I have spo­ken with dozens of ex­perts and civil so­ci­ety groups, met with se­nior state and fed­eral gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and talked with many peo­ple who are home­less or liv­ing in deep poverty. I am grate­ful to the Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion for fa­cil­i­tat­ing my visit and for its con­tin­u­ing co­op­er­a­tion with the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil’s ac­count­abil­ity mech­a­nisms that ap­ply to all states.

My visit co­in­cides with a dra­matic change of di­rec­tion in US poli­cies re­lat­ing to in­equal­ity and ex­treme poverty. The pro­posed tax re­form pack­age stakes out Amer­ica’s bid to be­come the most unequal so­ci­ety in the world, and will greatly in­crease the al­ready high lev­els of wealth and in­come in­equal­ity be­tween the rich­est 1% and the poor­est 50% of Amer­i­cans. The dra­matic cuts in wel­fare, fore­shad­owed by the Pres­i­dent and Speaker Ryan, and al­ready be­gin­ning to be im­ple­mented by the ad­min­is­tra­tion, will es­sen­tially shred cru­cial di­men­sions of a safety net that is al­ready full of holes. It is against this back­ground that my re­port is pre­sented.

The United States is one of the world’s rich­est, most pow­er­ful and tech­no­log­i­cally in­no­va­tive coun­tries; but nei­ther its wealth nor its power nor its tech­nol­ogy is be­ing har­nessed to ad­dress the sit­u­a­tion in which 40 mil­lion peo­ple con­tinue to live in poverty. I have seen and heard a lot over the past two weeks. I met with many peo­ple barely sur­viv­ing on Skid Row in Los An­ge­les, I wit­nessed a San Fran­cisco po­lice of­fi­cer telling a group of home­less peo­ple to move on but hav­ing no answer when asked where they could move to, I heard how thou­sands of poor peo­ple get mi­nor in­frac­tion no­tices which seem to be in­ten­tion­ally de­signed to quickly ex­plode into un­payable debt, in­car­cer­a­tion, and the re­plen­ish­ment of mu­nic­i­pal cof­fers, I saw sewage filled yards in states where gov­ern­ments don’t con­sider san­i­ta­tion fa­cil­i­ties to be their re­spon­si­bil­ity, I saw peo­ple who had lost all of their teeth be­cause adult den­tal care is not cov­ered by the vast ma­jor­ity of pro­grams avail­able to the very poor, I heard about soar­ing death rates and fam­ily and com­mu­nity de­struc­tion wrought by pre­scrip­tion and other drug ad­dic­tion, and I met with peo­ple in the South of Puerto Rico liv­ing next to a moun­tain of com­pletely un­pro­tected coal ash which rains down upon them bring­ing ill­ness, dis­abil­ity and death.

Of course, that is not the whole story. I also saw much that is pos­i­tive. I met with State and es­pe­cially mu­nic­i­pal of­fi­cials who are de­ter­mined to im­prove so­cial pro­tec­tion for the poor­est 20% of their com­mu­ni­ties, I saw an en­er­gized civil so­ci­ety in many places, I vis­ited a Catholic Church in San Fran­cisco (St Boni­face – the Gub­bio Project) that opens its pews to the home­less ev­ery day be­tween ser­vices, I saw ex­tra­or­di­nary re­silience and com­mu­nity sol­i­dar­ity in Puerto Rico, I toured an amaz­ing com­mu­nity health ini­tia­tive in Charleston (West Vir­ginia) that serves 21,000 pa­tients with free med­i­cal, den­tal, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal and other ser­vices, over­seen by lo­cal vol­un­teer physi­cians, den­tists and oth­ers (WV Health Right), and in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties pre­sent­ing at a Us-hu­man Rights Net­work con­fer­ence in At­lanta lauded Alaska’s ad­vanced health care sys­tem for in­dige­nous peo­ples, de­signed with di­rect par­tic­i­pa­tion of the tar­get group.

Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism was a con­stant theme in my con­ver­sa­tions. But in­stead of real­iz­ing its founders’ ad­mirable com­mit­ments, today’s United States has proved it­self to be ex­cep­tional in far more prob­lem­atic ways that are shock­ingly at odds with its im­mense wealth and its found­ing com­mit­ment to hu­man rights. As a re­sult, con­trasts be­tween pri­vate wealth and pub­lic squalor abound.

In talk­ing with peo­ple in the dif­fer­ent states and ter­ri­to­ries I was fre­quently asked how the US com­pares with other states. While such com­par­isons are not al­ways per­fect, a cross-sec­tion of sta­tis­ti­cal com­par­isons pro­vides a rel­a­tively clear pic­ture of the con­trast be­tween the wealth, in­no­va­tive ca­pac­ity, and work ethic of the US, and the so­cial and other out­comes that have been at­tained.

• By most in­di­ca­tors, the US is one of the world’s wealth­i­est coun­tries. It spends more on na­tional de­fense than China, Saudi Ara­bia, Rus­sia, United King­dom, In­dia, France, and Ja­pan com­bined.

• US health care ex­pen­di­tures per capita are dou­ble the OECD av­er­age and much higher than in all other coun­tries. But there are many fewer doctors and hos­pi­tal beds per per­son than the OECD av­er­age.

• US in­fant mor­tal­ity rates in 2013 were the high­est in the de­vel­oped world.

• 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.

• Ac­cord­ing to the World In­come In­equal­ity Data­base, the US has the high­est Gini rate (mea­sur­ing in­equal­ity) of all Western Coun­tries

• 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).

II. The hu­man rights di­men­sion

Suc­ces­sive ad­min­is­tra­tions, in­clud­ing the present one, have de­ter­minedly re­jected the idea that eco­nomic and so­cial rights are full-fledged hu­man rights, de­spite their clear recog­ni­tion not only in key treaties that the US has rat­i­fied (such as the Con­ven­tion on the Elim­i­na­tion of All Forms of Racial Dis­crim­i­na­tion), and in the Univer­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights which the US has long in­sisted other coun­tries must re­spect. But de­nial does not elim­i­nate re­spon­si­bil­ity, nor does it negate obli­ga­tions. In­ter­na­tional hu­man

rights law rec­og­nizes a right to ed­u­ca­tion, a right to health­care, a right to so­cial pro­tec­tion for those in need, and a right to an ad­e­quate stan­dard of liv­ing. In prac­tice, 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 health­care, or grow­ing up in a con­text of to­tal de­pri­va­tion.

Since the US has re­fused to rec­og­nize eco­nomic and so­cial rights agreed by most other states (ex­cept for the right to ed­u­ca­tion in state con­sti­tu­tions), the pri­mary fo­cus of the present re­port is on those civil and po­lit­i­cal rights re­flected in the US Bill of Rights and in the In­ter­na­tional Covenant on Civil and Po­lit­i­cal Rights which the US has rat­i­fied.

III. Who are ‘the poor’?

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.

The face of poverty in Amer­ica is not only Black, or His­panic, but also White, Asian, and many other col­ors. Nor is it con­fined to a par­tic­u­lar age group. Au­to­ma­tion and robo­ti­za­tion are al­ready throw­ing many mid­dle-aged work­ers out of jobs in which they once be­lieved them­selves to be se­cure. In the econ­omy of the twenty-first cen­tury, only a tiny per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion is im­mune from the pos­si­bil­ity that they could fall into poverty as a re­sult of bad breaks be­yond their own con­trol. The Amer­i­can Dream is rapidly be­com­ing the Amer­i­can Il­lu­sion as the US since the US now has the low­est rate of so­cial mo­bil­ity of any of the rich coun­tries.

IV. The cur­rent ex­tent of poverty in the US

There is con­sid­er­able de­bate over the ex­tent of poverty in the US, but for the pur­poses of this re­port prin­ci­pal reliance is placed upon the of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment statis­tics, drawn up pri­mar­ily by the US Cen­sus Bureau.

In or­der to de­fine and quan­tify poverty in Amer­ica, the Cen­sus Bureau uses ‘poverty thresh­olds’ or Of­fi­cial Poverty Mea­sures (OPM), up­dated each year. 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.

V. Prob­lems with ex­ist­ing poli­cies

There is no magic recipe for elim­i­nat­ing ex­treme poverty, and each level of gov­ern­ment must make its own good faith de­ci­sions. But at the end of the day, par­tic­u­larly in a rich coun­try like the USA, the per­sis­tence of ex­treme poverty is a po­lit­i­cal choice made by those in power. With po­lit­i­cal will, it could read­ily be elim­i­nated.

What is known, from long ex­pe­ri­ence and in light of the gov­ern­ment’s hu­man rights obli­ga­tions, is that there are in­dis­pens­able in­gre­di­ents for a set of poli­cies de­signed to elim­i­nate poverty. They in­clude: demo­cratic de­ci­sion-mak­ing, full em­ploy­ment poli­cies, so­cial pro­tec­tion for the vul­ner­a­ble, a fair and ef­fec­tive jus­tice sys­tem, gen­der and racial equal­ity and re­spect for hu­man dig­nity, re­spon­si­ble fis­cal poli­cies,

and en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice. Cur­rently, the United States falls far short on each of these is­sues.

1. The un­der­min­ing of democ­racy

The foun­da­tion stone of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety is democ­racy, but it is be­ing steadily un­der­mined. The prin­ci­ple of one per­son one vote ap­plies in the­ory, but it is far from the re­al­ity. In a democ­racy, the task of gov­ern­ment should be to fa­cil­i­tate po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion by en­sur­ing that all cit­i­zens can vote and that their votes will count equally. In the US there is overt dis­en­fran­chise­ment of vast num­bers of felons, a rule which pre­dom­i­nantly af­fects Black cit­i­zens since they are the ones whose con­duct is of­ten specif­i­cally tar­geted for crim­i­nal­iza­tion. In ad­di­tion, there are of­ten re­quire­ment that per­sons who have paid their debt to so­ci­ety still can­not re­gain their right to vote un­til they paid off all out­stand­ing fines and fees. Then there is covert dis­en­fran­chise­ment, which in­cludes the dra­matic ger­ry­man­der­ing of elec­toral dis­tricts to priv­i­lege par­tic­u­lar groups of vot­ers, the im­po­si­tion of ar­ti­fi­cial and un­nec­es­sary voter ID re­quire­ments, the bla­tant ma­nip­u­la­tion of polling sta­tion lo­ca­tions, the re­lo­cat­ing of DMVS to make it more dif­fi­cult for cer­tain groups to ob­tain IDS, and the gen­eral ramp­ing up of ob­sta­cles to vot­ing es­pe­cially by those with­out re­sources. The net re­sult is that peo­ple liv­ing in poverty, mi­nori­ties, and other dis­fa­vored groups are be­ing sys­tem­at­i­cally de­prived of their vot­ing rights.

A com­mon ex­pla­na­tion is that peo­ple see no im­prove­ment in their well-be­ing re­gard­less of who they elect, so that vot­ing is point­less. But the most com­pelling and dispir­it­ing ex­pla­na­tion I re­ceived came in answer to my ques­tion as to why vot­ing rates are so ex­traor­di­nar­ily low in West Vir­ginia. A state of­fi­cial pointed to ap­a­thy, which he ex­plained by say­ing that “when peo­ple are poor they just give up on the elec­toral sys­tem.” If this is the case, as seems likely, some po­lit­i­cal elites have a strong self-in­ter­est in keep­ing peo­ple in poverty. As one politi­cian re­marked to me, it would be in­struc­tive to un­der­take a sur­vey of the cam­paign ap­pear­ances of politi­cians in over­whelm­ingly poor dis­tricts.

2. An il­lu­sory em­pha­sis on em­ploy­ment

Pro­pos­als to slash the mea­ger wel­fare ar­range­ments that cur­rently ex­ist are now sold pri­mar­ily on the ba­sis that the poor need to get off wel­fare and back to work. The as­sump­tion is that there are a great many jobs out there wait­ing to be filled by in­di­vid­u­als with low ed­u­ca­tional stan­dards, of­ten suf­fer­ing dis­abil­i­ties of one kind or another, some­times bur­dened with a crim­i­nal record (per­haps for the crime of home­less­ness or not be­ing able to pay a traf­fic ticket), and with no train­ing or mean­ing­ful as­sis­tance to ob­tain em­ploy­ment. It also as­sumes that the jobs they could get will make them in­de­pen­dent of state as­sis­tance. Yet I spoke to work­ers from Walmart and other large stores who could not sur­vive on a full-time wage with­out also re­ly­ing on food stamps. It has been es­ti­mated that as much as $6 bil­lion dol­lars go from the SNAP pro­gram to sup­port such work­ers, thus pro­vid­ing a huge vir­tual sub­sidy to the rel­e­vant cor­po­ra­tions.

In terms of the em­ploy­ment mar­ket, the re­al­ity is very dif­fer­ent from that por­trayed by the wel­fare to work pro­po­nents. There has been a long-term de­cline in em­ploy­ment rates. For ex­am­ple, by 2017, only 89% of males from 25 to 54 years were em­ployed. While ‘sup­ply’ fac­tors such as grow­ing rates of dis­abil­ity, in­creas­ing ge­o­graphic im­mo­bil­ity, and higher in­car­cer­a­tion rates are rel­e­vant, a 2016 re­port by the White House Coun­cil of Eco­nomic Ad­vi­sors con­cluded that re­duc­tions in la­bor sup­ply are far less im­por­tant than re­duc­tions in la­bor de­mand in ac­count­ing for the long-run trend1. Fac­tors such as au­to­ma­tion and new tech­nolo­gies such as self-driv­ing cars, 3D prin­ters, and ro­bot-staffed fac­to­ries and ware­houses will see a con­tin­u­ing de­cline in de­mand for low-skilled la­bor.

Re­flect­ing on these de­vel­op­ments, lead­ing poverty ex­perts have con­cluded that:

Be­cause of this ris­ing job­less­ness, the U.S. poverty pop­u­la­tion is be­com­ing a more de­prived and des­ti­tute class, one that’s dis­con­nected from the econ­omy and un­able to meet ba­sic needs. … 40 per­cent of the 1999 poverty pop­u­la­tion was in deep poverty … [com­pared to 46 per­cent of the 2015 poverty pop­u­la­tion … . Like­wise, rates of ex­treme poverty (i.e., liv­ing on less than $2 per day per per­son) are also in­creas­ing, again be­cause of de­clin­ing em­ploy­ment as well as grow­ing “dis­con­nec­tion” from the safety net2.

3. Short­com­ings in ba­sic so­cial pro­tec­tion

There are a great many is­sues that could be cov­ered un­der this head­ing. In view of space lim­i­ta­tions I will fo­cus on three ma­jor con­cerns.

(i) In­dige­nous peo­ples

Chiefs and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from both rec­og­nized and non-rec­og­nized tribes pre­sented me with ev­i­dence of wide­spread ex­treme poverty in in­dig-

enous com­mu­ni­ties in the USA. They called for fed­eral recog­ni­tion as an es­sen­tial first step to ad­dress poverty, in­di­cat­ing that with­out it their way of life is crim­i­nalised, they are dis­em­pow­ered, and their cul­ture is de­stroyed – all of which per­pet­u­ate poverty, poor health, and shock­ingly high sui­cide rates. Liv­ing con­di­tions in Pine Ridge, Lakota, were de­scribed as com­pa­ra­ble to Haiti, with an­nual in­comes of less than $12 000 and in­fant mor­tal­ity rates three times higher than the na­tional rate. Nine lives have been lost there to sui­cide in the last three months, in­clud­ing one six year old. Nev­er­the­less, fed­er­ally funded pro­grammes aimed at sui­cide pre­ven­tion have been de­funded.

25. Tes­ti­mony also re­vealed an ur­gent need for data col­lec­tion on poverty in all in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, greater ac­cess to health­care, and stronger pro­tec­tion from pri­vate and cor­po­rate abuse. The Red Wa­ter Pond Navajo tribe spoke about preda­tory loans in­volv­ing 400% in­ter­est rates, and a high in­ci­dence of kid­ney, liver and pan­cre­atic can­cers.

(ii) Chil­dren in poverty

A shock­ingly high num­ber of chil­dren in the US live in poverty. In 2016, 18% of chil­dren – some 13.3 mil­lion – were liv­ing in poverty, with chil­dren com­pris­ing 32.6% of all peo­ple in poverty. Child poverty rates are high­est in the south­ern states, with Mis­sis­sippi, New Mex­ico at 30% and Louisiana at 29%.

Con­trary to the stereo­typ­i­cal as­sump­tions, 31% of poor chil­dren are White, 24% are Black, 36% are His­panic, and 1% are in­dige­nous. When look­ing at tod­dlers and in­fants, 42% of all Black chil­dren are poor, 32% of His­pan­ics, and 37% of Na­tive Amer­i­can in­fants and tod­dlers are poor. The fig­ure for Whites is 14%.

Poor chil­dren are also sig­nif­i­cantly af­fected by Amer­ica’s af­ford­able and ad­e­quate hous­ing cri­sis. Around 21% of per­sons ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness are chil­dren. While most are re­port­edly ex­pe­ri­enc­ing shel­tered home­less­ness, the lack of fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity, high evic­tion rates, and high mo­bil­ity rates neg­a­tively im­pact ed­u­ca­tion, and phys­i­cal and men­tal health.

On a pos­i­tive note, most chil­dren liv­ing in poverty do have med­i­cal in­sur­ance. Due to the ex­pan­sion of Med­i­caid and the cre­ation of the Chil­dren’s Health In­sur­ance Pro­gram in 1997, as of 2016, some 95% of all chil­dren had health in­sur­ance. Med­i­caid and CHIP have low­ered the rate of chil- dren with­out health cov­er­age from 14% in 1997 to 5.3% in 2015.

Other sup­port pro­grams are also im­por­tant, such as the Sup­ple­men­tal Nu­tri­tion As­sis­tance Pro­gram (SNAP) which is es­ti­mated to lift some five mil­lion chil­dren out of poverty an­nu­ally, while in 2015 the Earned In­come Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) lifted a fur­ther five mil­lion chil­dren out of poverty. By con­trast, TANF is not get­ting to enough chil­dren, with less than 25% of all poor fam­i­lies that are el­i­gi­ble for cash as­sis­tance un­der TANF ac­tu­ally re­ceiv­ing it. Pro­posed cut­backs to most of these pro­grams would have dra­matic con­se­quences.

(iii) Adult den­tal care

The Af­ford­able Care Act greatly ex­panded the avail­abil­ity of den­tal care to chil­dren, but the sit­u­a­tions of adults liv­ing in poverty re­mains lam­en­ta­ble. Their only ac­cess to den­tal care is through the emer­gency room, which usu­ally means that when the pain be­comes ex­cru­ci­at­ing or dis­abling, they are el­i­gi­ble to have the tooth ex­tracted. Poor oral hy­giene and dis­fig­ur­ing den­tal pro­files lead to un­em­ploy­a­bil­ity in many jobs, be­ing shunned in the com­mu­nity, and be­ing un­able to func­tion ef­fec­tively. Yet there is no na­tional pro­gram, and very few state pro­grams, to ad­dress these is­sues which fun­da­men­tally af­fect the hu­man dig­nity and ul­ti­mately the civil rights of the per­sons con­cerned.

4. Reliance on crim­i­nal­iza­tion to con­ceal the prob­lem

Home­less es­ti­mates pub­lished by the Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment in De­cem­ber 2017 show a na­tion­wide fig­ure of 553,742, which in­cludes 76,500 in New York, 55,200 in Los An­ge­les, and 6,900 in San Fran­cisco3. These fig­ures are widely con­sid­ered to be an un­der­count, as il­lus­trated by es­ti­mates of 21,000 in San Fran­cisco pro­vided by var­i­ous ex­perts with whom I met.

In many cities, home­less per­sons are ef­fec­tively crim­i­nal­ized for the sit­u­a­tion in which they find them­selves. Sleep­ing rough, sit­ting in pub­lic places, pan­han­dling, pub­lic uri­na­tion (in cities that pro­vide al­most zero pub­lic toi­lets) and myr­iad other of­fences have been de­vised to at­tack the ‘blight’ of home­less­ness. Ever more de­mand­ing and in­tru­sive reg­u­la­tions lead to in­frac­tion no­tices, which rapidly turn into mis­de­meanors, lead­ing to the is­suance of war­rants, in­car­cer­a­tion, the in­cur­ring of un­payable fines, and the stigma of a crim­i­nal con­vic­tion that in turn vir­tu­ally pre­vents sub­se­quent em­ploy­ment and ac­cess to most hous­ing. Yet the au­thor­i­ties in

cities like Los An­ge­les and San Fran­cisco of­ten en­cour­age this vi­cious cir­cle. In Skid Row, LA., 6,696 ar­rests of home­less per­sons were re­ported to have been made be­tween 2011 and 2016. Rather than re­spond­ing to home­less per­sons as af­fronts to the senses and to their neigh­bor­hoods, cit­i­zens and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties should see in their pres­ence a tragic in­dict­ment of com­mu­nity and gov­ern­ment poli­cies. Home­less­ness on this scale is far from in­evitable and again re­flects po­lit­i­cal choices to see law en­force­ment rather than low cost hous­ing, med­i­cal treat­ment, psy­cho­log­i­cal coun­selling, and job train­ing as the so­lu­tions. But the fu­til­ity of many ex­ist­ing ap­proaches was all too ev­i­dent as I walked around some of the worst af­fected ar­eas.

In many cities and coun­ties 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 di­verse other pro­grams. The use of the le­gal sys­tem, not to pro­mote jus­tice, but to raise rev­enue, as doc­u­mented so pow­er­fully in the Depart­ment of Jus­tice’s re­port on Fer­gu­son, is per­va­sive around the coun­try. 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. State, county and mu­nic­i­pal po­lice and law en­force­ment agen­cies are not al­ways forces for change in such set­tings. While they play an in­dis­pens­able role in keep­ing the cit­i­zenry se­cure, they some­times also pres­sure leg­is­la­tures to main­tain high staffing and over­time lev­els, at the ex­pense of less ex­pen­sive ap­proaches which would ad­dress the so­cial chal­lenges con­struc­tively and ef­fec­tively and elim­i­nate the need for a law en­force­ment re­sponse.

Another prac­tice which af­fects the poor al­most ex­clu­sively is that of set­ting large bail bonds for a de­fen­dant who seeks to go free pend­ing trial. Some 11 mil­lion peo­ple are ad­mit­ted to lo­cal jails an­nu­ally, and on any given day there are more than 730,000 peo­ple are be­ing held, of whom al­most two-thirds are await­ing trial, and thus pre­sumed to be in­no­cent. Yet judges have in­creas­ingly set large amounts of bail, which mean that wealthy de­fen­dants can se­cure their free­dom, whole poor de­fen­dants are likely to stay in jail, with all of the con­se­quences in terms of loss of their jobs, dis­rup­tion of their child­care, in­abil­ity to pay rent, and a dive into deeper des­ti­tu­tion. A ma­jor move­ment to elim­i­nate bail bonds is gath­er­ing steam, and needs to be em­braced by any­one con­cerned about the ut­terly dis­pro­por­tion­ate im­pact of the jus­tice sys­tem upon the poor.

Fi­nally, men­tion must be made of the wide­spread prac­tice of sus­pend­ing driv­ers’ li­censes for a wide range of non-driv­ing re­lated of­fences, such as a fail­ure to pay fines. This is a per­fect way to en­sure that the poor, liv­ing in com­mu­ni­ties which have stead­fastly re­fused to in­vest in se­ri­ous pub­lic trans­port sys­tems, are un­able to earn a liv­ing which might have helped to pay the out­stand­ing debt. Two paths are open: penury, or driv­ing il­le­gally, thus risk­ing even more se­ri­ous and counter-pro­duc­tive crim­i­nal­iza­tion.

5. The gen­dered na­ture of poverty

Many statis­tics could be cited to demon­strate the ex­tent to which women shoul­der a par­tic­u­larly high bur­den as a re­sult of liv­ing in poverty. They are, for ex­am­ple, more ex­posed to vi­o­lence, more vul­ner­a­ble to sex­ual ha­rass­ment, dis­crim­i­nated against in the la­bor mar­ket. Luke Shafer and Kathryn Edin con­clude that the num­ber of chil­dren in sin­gle-mother house­holds liv­ing in ex­treme poverty for an en­tire year has bal­looned from fewer than 100,000 in 1995 to 895,000 in 2011 and 704,000 in 2012. But per­haps the least rec­og­nized harm is that aus­ter­ity poli­cies that shrink the ser­vices pro­vided by the state in­evitably mean that the re­sult­ing bur­den is im­posed in­stead upon the pri­mary care­givers within fam­i­lies, who are over­whelm­ingly women. Male-dom­i­nated leg­is­la­tures rarely pay any heed to this con­se­quence of the wel­fare cut­backs they im­pose.

6. Racism, dis­abil­ity, and de­mo­niza­tion of the poor

De­mo­niza­tion of the poor can take many forms. It has been in­ter­nal­ized by many poor peo­ple who proudly re­sist ap­ply­ing for ben­e­fits to which they are en­ti­tled and strug­gle valiantly to sur­vive against the odds. Racism is a con­stant di­men­sion and I re­gret that in a re­port that seeks to cover so much ground there is not room to delve much more deeply into

the phe­nom­e­non. Racial dis­par­i­ties, al­ready great, are be­ing en­trenched and ex­ac­er­bated in many con­texts. In Alabama, I saw var­i­ous houses in ru­ral ar­eas that were sur­rounded by cesspools of sewage that flowed out of bro­ken or non-ex­is­tent sep­tic sys­tems. The State Health Depart­ment had no idea of how many house­holds ex­ist in these con­di­tions, de­spite the grave health con­se­quences. Nor did they have any plan to find out, or de­vise a plan to do some­thing about it. But since the great ma­jor­ity of White folks live in the cities, which are well served by gov­ern­ment built and main­tained sew­er­age sys­tems, and most of the ru­ral folks in ar­eas like Lown­des County, are Black, the prob­lem doesn’t ap­pear on the po­lit­i­cal or gov­ern­men­tal radar screen.

The same ap­plies to per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties. In the rush to claim that many ben­e­fi­cia­ries are scam­ming the sys­tem, it is of­ten as­serted, al­beit with lit­tle ev­i­dence, that large num­bers of those re­ceiv­ing dis­abil­ity al­lowances are un­de­serv­ing. When I probed the very high rates of per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties in West Vir­ginia, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials ex­plained that most re­cip­i­ents had at­tained low lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion, worked in de­mand­ing man­ual la­bor jobs, and were of­ten ex­posed to risks that em­ploy­ers were not re­quired to guard against.

7. Con­fused and counter-pro­duc­tive drug poli­cies

The opi­oid cri­sis has drawn ex­ten­sive at­ten­tion, as it should. It has dev­as­tated many com­mu­ni­ties and the ad­dic­tion of­ten leads to heroin, metham­phetamine, and other sub­stance abuse. Many states have in­tro­duced highly puni­tive regimes di­rected against preg­nant women, rather than try­ing to pro­vide sym­pa­thetic treat­ment and to max­i­mize the well-be­ing of the fe­tus. As one sub­mis­sion put it:

Moth­ers in Alabama face crim­i­nal prose­cu­tions which can re­sult in years of in­car­cer­a­tion, as well as civil child wel­fare pro­ceed­ings that have the power to sep­a­rate fam­i­lies and sever a per­son’s parental rights. Fam­i­lies liv­ing in poverty are al­ready dis­pro­por­tion­ately the sub­ject of child wel­fare in­ves­ti­ga­tions in the United States. Ex­perts have found that poor chil­dren dis­pro­por­tion­ately suf­fer im­po­si­tions of the child wel­fare sys­tem, and fam­i­lies who re­ceive pub­lic as­sis­tance are four times more likely than oth­ers to be in­ves­ti­gated and have their chil­dren re­moved from the fam­ily home on the ba­sis of al­leged child mal­treat­ment4.

Sim­i­larly, states are in­creas­ingly seek­ing to im­pose drug tests on re­cip­i­ents of wel­fare ben­e­fits, with pro­grams that lead to ex­pul­sion from the pro­gram for re­peat of­fend­ers. Such poli­cies are en­tirely count- er-pro­duc­tive, highly in­tru­sive, and puni­tive where care is re­quired in­stead. The jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of­fered to me in West Vir­ginia was that the state should not be sup­port­ing some­one who is ad­dicted to drugs. It would be in­ter­est­ing to see if the same ra­tio­nale were ac­cepted if it was pro­posed that leg­is­la­tors and se­nior of­fi­cials, who must keep the pub­lic trust, should also be reg­u­larly drug-tested, and pun­ished for fail­ure to go clean in a short time.

Sim­i­larly, the con­trast be­tween the huge sen­tences handed down to those us­ing drugs such as crack co­caine, con­trasts dra­mat­i­cally and in­com­pre­hen­si­bly with the ap­proach ap­plied in most cases of opi­oid ad­dic­tion. The key vari­able seems to be race. The les­son to be learned is that the gen­er­ally hu­mane and car­ing re­sponse to opi­oid users should be ap­plied to most cases of sub­stance ad­dic­tion.

8. The use of fraud as a smoke­screen

Calls for wel­fare re­form take place against a con­stant drum­beat of al­le­ga­tions of wide­spread fraud in the sys­tem. The con­trast with tax re­form is in­struc­tive. In that con­text im­mense faith is placed in the good­will and al­tru­ism of the cor­po­rate ben­e­fi­cia­ries, while with wel­fare re­form the op­po­site as­sump­tions ap­ply. The poor are in­her­ently lazy, dis­hon­est, and care only about their own in­ter­ests. And gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials with whom I met in­sisted that the states are gam­ing the sys­tem to de­fraud the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, in­di­vid­u­als are con­stantly com­ing up with new lurks to live high on the wel­fare hog, and com­mu­nity groups are ex­ag­ger­at­ing the num­bers. The re­al­ity, of course, is that there are good and bad cor­po­rate ac­tors and there are good and bad wel­fare claimants. But while fund­ing for the IRS to au­dit wealthy tax­pay­ers has been re­duced, ef­forts to iden­tify wel­fare fraud are be­ing greatly in­ten­si­fied. The answer is nu­anced gov­ern­men­tal reg­u­la­tion, rather than an ab­di­ca­tion in re­spect to the wealthy, and a dou­bling down on in­tru­sive and puni­tive poli­cies to­wards the poor. Rev­e­la­tions of wide­spread tax avoid­ance by com­pa­nies and high­wealth in­di­vid­u­als draw no re­buke, only ac­qui­es­cence and the main­te­nance of the loop­holes and other ar­range­ments de­signed to fa­cil­i­tate such ar­range­ments. Rev­e­la­tion of food stamps be­ing used for pur­poses other than stay­ing alive draw howls of out­rage from gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and their me­dia sup­port­ers.

9. Pri­va­ti­za­tion

So­lu­tions to ma­jor so­cial chal­lenges in the US are in­creas­ingly seen to lie with pri­va­ti­za­tion. While the firms con­cerned have prof­ited hand­somely, it is

far from clear that op­ti­mum out­comes have been achieved for the rel­e­vant client pop­u­la­tions. In par­tic­u­lar, greater con­sid­er­a­tion needs to be given to the role of cor­po­ra­tions in prevent­ing ra­tio­nal pol­icy-mak­ing and ad­vo­cat­ing against re­forms in or­der to main­tain their prof­its at the ex­pense of the poor­est mem­bers of so­ci­ety. Dur­ing my visit I was told of many ex­am­ples. For ex­am­ple, bail bond cor­po­ra­tions which ex­ist in only one other coun­try in the world, pre­cisely be­cause they dis­tort jus­tice, en­cour­age ex­ces­sive and of­ten un­nec­es­sary lev­els of bail, and fuel and lobby for a sys­tem that by def­i­ni­tion pe­nal­izes the poor. The rich can al­ways pay, and can avoid the 10% or even more that bail bond com­pa­nies de­mand as a non-re­fund­able down-pay­ment. I heard cases of in­di­vid­u­als who paid thou­sands of dol­lars to post bail, and lost it all when charges were dropped a day later. If they were sub­se­quently charged with a dif­fer­ent of­fence, the whole process be­gins again and all pre­vi­ous pay­ments are lost. Other ex­am­ples in­clude the cor­po­ra­tions run­ning pri­vate for-profit pris­ons, as well as bounty-hunters.

10. En­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity

In Alabama and West Vir­ginia I was informed of the high pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion that was not be­ing served by pub­lic sew­er­age and wa­ter sup­ply ser­vices. Con­trary to the as­sump­tion in most coun­tries that such ser­vices should be ex­tended sys­tem­at­i­cally and even­tu­ally com­pre­hen­sively to all ar­eas by the gov­ern­ment, in nei­ther state was I able to ob­tain fig­ures as to the mag­ni­tude of the chal­lenge or de­tails of any gov­ern­ment plans to ad­dress the is­sues in the fu­ture.

VI. Prin­ci­pal cur­rent gov­ern­men­tal re­sponses

The anal­y­sis that fol­lows is pri­mar­ily fo­cused on the Fed­eral level. Fed­er­al­ism com­pli­cates ques­tions of re­spon­si­bil­ity but one irony that emerged clearly from my visit is that those who fight hard­est to up­hold State rights, also fight hard to deny city and county rights. If the rhetoric about en­cour­ag­ing lab­o­ra­to­ries of in­no­va­tion is to be mean­ing­ful, the free­dom to in­no­vate can­not be re­stricted to state politi­cians alone.

1. Tax re­form

Deep and dra­matic changes look likely to be adopted in the space of the next few days as Congress con­sid­ers a fi­nal uni­fied ver­sion of the Tax Bill. From a hu­man rights per­spec­tive, the lack of pub­lic de­bate, the closed na­ture of the ne­go­ti­a­tion, the ex­clu­sion of the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of al­most half of the Amer­i­can peo­ple from the process, and the in­abil­ity of elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives to know in any de­tail

what they are be­ing asked to vote for, all raise ma­jor con­cerns. Sim­i­larly, the pro­posed im­me­di­ate up­end­ing of many long­stand­ing ar­range­ments on the ba­sis of which cit­i­zens have planned their fu­tures, raises im­por­tant is­sues re­lat­ing to the need for a de­gree of pre­dictabil­ity and re­spect for rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tions in adopt­ing tax re­form.

One of the over­rid­ing con­cerns how­ever is the enor­mous im­pe­tus given to in­come and wealth in­equal­ity by the pro­posed re­forms. While most other na­tions, and all of the ma­jor in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions such as the OECD, the World Bank, and the IMF have ac­knowl­edged that ex­treme in­equal­i­ties in wealth and in­come are eco­nom­i­cally in­ef­fi­cient and so­cially dam­ag­ing, the tax re­form pack­age is es­sen­tially a bid to make the US the world cham­pion of ex­treme in­equal­ity. As noted in the World In­equal­ity Re­port 2018, in both Europe and the US the top 1% of adults earned around 10% of na­tional in­come in 1980. In Europe that has risen today to 12%, but in the US it has reached 20%. In the same time pe­riod in the US an­nual in­come earn­ings for the top 1% have risen by 205%, while for the top 0.001% the fig­ure is 636%. By com­par­i­son, the av­er­age an­nual wage of the bot­tom 50% has stag­nated since 1980.

At the state level, the de­mo­niz­ing of tax­a­tion, as though it is in­her­ently evil, means that leg­is­la­ture ef­fec­tively refuse to levy taxes even when there is a des­per­ate need. In­stead they im­pose fees and fines through the back door, some of which fund the jus­tice sys­tem and oth­ers of which go to fund the pet projects of leg­is­la­tors. This sleight of hand tech­nique is a win­ner, in the sense that the po­lit­i­cally pow­er­ful rich do not have to pay any more taxes, while the po­lit­i­cally marginal­ized poor bear the bur­den but can do noth­ing about it.

2. Wel­fare re­form

In cal­cu­lat­ing how the pro­posed tax cuts can be paid for, the Trea­sury has ex­plic­itly listed wel­fare re­form as an im­por­tant source of rev­enue5. In­deed, var­i­ous key of­fi­cials have made the same point that ma­jor cuts will need to be made in wel­fare pro­vi­sion. Given the ex­ten­sive, and in some cases un­remit­ting, cuts that have been made in re­cent years, the con­se­quences for an al­ready over­stretched and in­ad­e­quate sys­tem of so­cial pro­tec­tion are likely to be fa­tal for many pro­grams, and pos­si­bly also for those who rely upon them.

3. Health­care re­form

The Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader re­cently wrote that “the Se­nate also voted to de­liver re­lief to low- and mid-

dle-in­come Amer­i­cans by re­peal­ing Oba­macare's in­di­vid­ual man­date tax. For too long, fam­i­lies have suf­fered un­der this un­pop­u­lar and un­fair tax im­posed un­der an un­work­able law.” Many ob­servers with whom I spoke con­sider that this move will, over time, make the rest of the ACA un­vi­able, thus re­mov­ing many mil­lions of per­sons from the ranks of the in­sured.

There have also been many ref­er­ences in state­ments by se­nior of­fi­cials to the de­sir­abil­ity of re­duc­ing Medi­care and Med­i­caid ex­pen­di­tures. When I asked state of­fi­cials what they thought the con­se­quences would be of re­peal­ing the ACA’S Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion, the unan­i­mous re­sponse was that it would be dis­as­trous, not just for the in­di­vid­u­als con­cerned but also for state health care sys­tems.

In ad­di­tion, there is con­sid­er­able un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing the fund­ing of the Chil­dren’s Health In­sur­ance Pro­gram (CHIP), on which al­most 9 mil­lion low-in­come chil­dren de­pend for their pri­mary health and den­tal care6. If long-term fund­ing is not se­cured, those chil­dren could be left un­pro­tected. If fund­ing is se­cured, but threats to grad­u­ally de­crease fund­ing for the pro­gram over the short-term even­tu­ate, this would also have dev­as­tat­ing on the health of mil­lions of poor chil­dren in Amer­ica.

Sim­i­larly, Fed­er­ally Qual­i­fied Health Cen­ters (FQCHS) are fed­er­ally-funded, “safety-net” providers of com­pre­hen­sive pri­mary and pre­ven­tive health care, re­gard­less of the in­sur­ance sta­tus or abil­ity to pay7. The health cen­ter pro­gram has been able to grow due to ex­panded Med­i­caid el­i­gi­bil­ity and in­creases in fed­eral grant fund­ing, in­clud­ing un­der the Af­ford­able Care Act8. The fu­ture of these cen­ters is, how­ever, un­cer­tain, with a re-fund­ing bill hav­ing passed the House but Se­nate con­sid­er­a­tion be­ing de­layed. If the fund­ing is lost, some 2,800 health cen­ters across the coun­try could close9, 9 mil­lion pa­tients could lose ac­cess to pri­mary and pre­ven­tive care, more than 51,000 providers and staff could lose their jobs, and $7.5 bil­lion rev­enue will be fore­gone in eco­nom­i­cally dis­tressed com­mu­ni­ties10. If the fund­ing is de­creased, one can only pre­sume the ef­fects will be com­men­su­rately dev­as­tat­ing.

4. New in­for­ma­tion tech­nolo­gies

The term ‘new in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy’ or ‘new tech­nol­ogy’ is not well-de­fined, de­spite its fre­quent use. It is com­monly used for such widely dif­fer­ent but in­ter­re­lated phe­nom­ena as the spec­tac­u­lar in­crease in com­put­ing power, ‘Big Data’, ma­chine learn­ing, al­go­rithms, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and robo­ti­za­tion, among other things. These sep­a­rate terms of­ten

also lack a clear def­i­ni­tion11. There are clear ben­e­fits to the rapid de­vel­op­ment of new in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy. A 2016 White House Re­port, for ex­am­ple, high­lights the ma­jor ben­e­fits of new ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tech­nol­ogy “to the pub­lic in fields as di­verse as health care, trans­porta­tion, the en­vi­ron­ment, crim­i­nal jus­tice, and eco­nomic in­clu­sion” in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence12. But the risks are also in­creas­ingly clear. Much more at­ten­tion needs to be given to the ways in which new tech­nol­ogy im­pacts the hu­man rights of the poor­est Amer­i­cans13. This in­quiry is of rel­e­vance to a much wider group since ex­pe­ri­ence shows that the poor are of­ten a test­ing ground for prac­tices and poli­cies that may then be ap­plied to oth­ers. These are some rel­e­vant con­cerns.

(i) Co­or­di­nated en­try sys­tems

A co­or­di­nated en­try sys­tem (CES) is, in essence, a sys­tem set up to match the home­less pop­u­la­tion with avail­able home­less ser­vices. Such sys­tems are gain­ing in pop­u­lar­ity and their hu­man rights im­pact has not yet been stud­ied ex­ten­sively14. I spoke to a range of civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in Los An­ge­les and San Fran­cisco about CES.

In Los An­ge­les, CES is one of the pil­lars of mayor Garcetti’s strat­egy15 to tackle the home­less­ness cri­sis in the city. The sys­tem is ad­min­is­tered by the Los An­ge­les Home­less Ser­vice Au­thor­ity (LAHSA). Tens of thou­sands of Los An­ge­les’ home­less pop­u­la­tion have been in­cluded in the sys­tem since it was first set up in 2013. It works as fol­lows. A home­less ser­vice case­worker or vol­un­teer in­ter­views a home­less in­di­vid­ual us­ing a sur­vey called the Vul­ner­a­bil­ity In­dex-ser­vice Pri­or­ity De­ci­sion As­sis­tance Tool (VI-SPDAT). This data is stored in a Home­less Man­age­ment In­for­ma­tion Sys­tem (HMIS) that stores the data. A rank­ing al­go­rithm gives the home­less re­spon­dent a vul­ner­a­bil­ity score be­tween 1 and 17 and a sec­ond, match­ing, al­go­rithm, matches the most vul­ner­a­ble home­less to ap­pro­pri­ate hous­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

The CES re­places a pre­vi­ous sys­tem of match­ing the home­less to hous­ing that was de­scribed to me by var­i­ous in­ter­locu­tors as dys­func­tional. It is based on the prin­ci­ple of ‘Hous­ing First’, which fo­cuses on pro­vid­ing hous­ing be­fore any­thing else. But de­spite the good in­ten­tions of of­fi­cials in Los An­ge­les, there is an Or­wellian side to CES. Sim­i­lar con­cerns were ex­pressed to me about the San Fran­cisco CES.

A first, and ma­jor, con­cern is that the VI-SPDAT sur-

vey asks home­less in­di­vid­u­als to give up the most in­ti­mate de­tails of their lives. Among many other ques­tions, the VI-SPDAT sur­vey re­quires home­less in­di­vid­u­als to answer whether they en­gage in sex work, whether they have ever stolen med­i­ca­tions, how of­ten they have been in touch with the po­lice and whether they have “planned ac­tiv­i­ties each day other than just sur­viv­ing that bring [them] hap­pi­ness and ful­fill­ment”. One re­searcher I met with who has in­ter­viewed home­less in­di­vid­u­als that took the VI-SPDAT sur­vey ex­plained that many feel they are giv­ing up their hu­man right to pri­vacy in re­turn for their hu­man right to hous­ing.

A civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tion in San Fran­cisco ex­plained that many home­less in­di­vid­u­als feel deeply am­biva­lent about the mil­lions of dol­lars that are be­ing spent on new tech­nol­ogy to fun­nel them to hous­ing that does not ex­ist. Ac­cord­ing to some of my in­ter­locu­tors, only a mi­nor­ity of those home­less in­di­vid­u­als be­ing in­ter­viewed ac­tu­ally ac­quire per­ma­nent hous­ing, be­cause of the chronic short­age of af­ford­able hous­ing and Sec­tion 8 hous­ing vouch­ers in Cal­i­for­nia. As one par­tic­i­pant in a civil so­ci­ety town hall in San Fran­cisco put it: “Com­put­ers and tech­nol­ogy can­not solve home­less­ness”.

A third con­cern re­lated to ac­cess to and shar­ing of the wealth of data col­lected via co­or­di­nated en­try sys­tems and stored in HMIS. Ac­cord­ing to 2004 data stan­dards by the Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment, home­less or­ga­ni­za­tions that record, use or process Pro­tected Per­sonal In­for­ma­tion on home­less clients for a HMIS may share that in­for­ma­tion with law en­force­ment in a num­ber of cir­cum­stances, in­clud­ing in re­sponse to “an oral re­quest for the pur­pose of iden­ti­fy­ing or lo­cat­ing a sus­pect, fugi­tive, ma­te­rial wit­ness or miss­ing per­son” with­out the need for a war­rant or any other form of ju­di­cial over­sight16.

I un­der­stood from civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions that home­less in­di­vid­u­als who have been in­ter­viewed for VI-SPDAT have ex­pressed a fear, a fear that does not seem un­jus­ti­fied in light of the cur­rent le­gal regime, that the po­lice would ac­cess the very sen­si­tive per­sonal data stored in HMIS. When I met with the Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor of LAHSA, he as­sured me that LAHSA is work­ing on a pol­icy de­ci­sion to deny the LAPD ac­cess to HMIS, which would be an im­por­tant step in safe­guard­ing the hu­man right to pri­vacy and other civil rights of the home­less. Other lo­cal and county of­fi­cials have also as­sured me that the LAPD is cur­rently not al­lowed ac­cess to HMIS.

How­ever, since fed­eral stan­dards al­low such ac­cess and given the fact that the LAPD informed me that it is “un­for­tu­nate” that they cur­rently have no ac­cess to CES data, it is likely there will be con­tin­ued pres­sure on LAHSA and sim­i­lar agen­cies in other mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to give ac­cess to the po­lice to this ‘gold mine’ of in­for­ma­tion. Ac­cess by the po­lice to HMIS is only one pol­icy de­ci­sion away.

(ii) Risk as­sess­ment tools in the pre-trial phase

Across the United States, a move­ment is un­der­way to re­form the pre­trial sys­tem. At the heart of the re­form is an ef­fort to dis­con­nect pre­trial de­ten­tion from wealth and to tie it to risk in­stead. And to ac­com­plish that goal, a grow­ing num­ber of ju­ris­dic­tions are adopt­ing risk as­sess­ment tools (also called ac­tu­ar­ial tools, or Ac­tu­ar­ial Pre­trial Risk As­sess­ment In­stru­ments -APRAIS17) to as­sist in pre­trial re­lease and cus­tody de­ci­sions18. This move from pre­trial de­ten­tion and money bail to risk as­sess­ment is widely sup­ported, but new risks to the hu­man rights of the poor in the United States arise with the use of risk as­sess­ment tools.

Au­to­mated risk as­sess­ment tools, take “data about the ac­cused, feed it into a com­put­er­ized al­go­rithm, and gen­er­ate a pre­dic­tion of the sta­tis­ti­cal prob­a­bil­ity the per­son will com­mit some fu­ture mis­con­duct, par­tic­u­larly a new crime or missed court ap­pear­ance.” 19 The sys­tem will gen­er­ally in­di­cate whether the risk for the par­tic­u­lar de­fen­dant, com­pared to ob­served out­comes among a pop­u­la­tion of in­di­vid­u­als who share cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics, is ‘high’, ‘mod­er­ate’, or ‘low’. Judges main­tain dis­cre­tion, in the­ory, to ig­nore the risk score.

One fun­da­men­tal cri­tique is that risk as­sess­ments are based on turn­ing in­di­vid­ual cir­cum­stances into risk cat­e­gories. The over­whelm­ingly poor de­fen­dants who are con­fronted with these new prac­tices are turned into ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’ risk classes, a de­mean­ing process for those in­volved which goes di­rectly against the prin­ci­ple of an in­di­vid­u­al­ized crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

Sev­eral in­ter­locu­tors warned that these tools may seem to pro­duce ob­jec­tive scores, but that the de­ci­sion what risk level to qual­ify as ‘high’ or ‘low’ is not an ob­jec­tive, but a po­lit­i­cal choice, that should ul­ti­mately be de­cided by vot­ers, not the, of­ten pri­vate, de­vel­op­ers of these tools.

Risk as­sess­ment tools pose the same risks as­so­ci­ated with pri­va­tiz­ing pub­lic func­tions that cur­rently plague the money bail sys­tem. I met with a Di­vi­sion Chief in the Pub­lic De­fender’s Of­fice of

Los An­ge­les County who ex­plained the pres­sure court sys­tems are un­der to buy risk as­sess­ment tools ‘off the shelf’ from pri­vate ven­dors. As in other con­texts, the in­ner work­ings of such tools as pro­pri­etary to the com­pany that sells it, which leads to se­ri­ous due process con­cerns that af­fect the civil rights of the poor in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem20.

(iii) Ac­cess to high-speed broad­band ac­cess in West Vir­ginia

Civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions have urged me to fo­cus on ob­sta­cles to in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity in im­pov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties in West Vir­ginia21. This is a per­sis­tent prob­lem in the state, where an es­ti­mated 30% of West Vir­gini­ans lack ac­cess to high speed broad­band (com­pared to 10% na­tion­ally) and 48% of ru­ral West Vir­gini­ans lack ac­cess (com­pared to 39% of the ru­ral pop­u­la­tion na­tion­ally) 22. But when I asked the Gov­er­nor’s of­fice in West Vir­ginia about ef­forts to ex­pand broad­band ac­cess in poor, ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, it could only point to a 2010 broad­band ex­pan­sion ef­fort. It down­played the ex­tent of the prob­lem by claim­ing that there were “some is­sues” with ac­cess to In­ter­net in West Vir­ginia’s val­leys.

5. Puerto Rico

I spent two days of the nine days I trav­eled out­side of Wash­ing­ton, DC, in Puerto Rico. I wit­nessed the dev­as­ta­tion of hur­ri­cane Irma and Maria in Sali­nas and Guayama in the south of the is­land, as well as in the poor Caño Martin Peña neigh­bor­hood in San Juan. Both in the south and in San Juan I lis­tened to in­di­vid­u­als in poverty and civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions on how these nat­u­ral dis­as­ters are just the lat­est in a se­ries of bad news for Puerto Ri­cans, which in­clude an eco­nomic cri­sis, a debt cri­sis, an aus­ter­ity cri­sis and, ar­guably, a struc­tural po­lit­i­cal cri­sis.

Po­lit­i­cal rights and poverty are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked in Puerto Rico. If it were a state, Puerto Rico would be the poor­est state in the Union. But Puerto Rico is not a state, it is a mere ‘ter­ri­tory.’ Puerto Ri­cans have no rep­re­sen­ta­tive with full vot­ing rights in Congress and, un­less liv­ing state­side, can­not vote for the Pres­i­dent of the United States. In a coun­try that likes to see it­self as the old­est democ­racy in the world and a staunch de­fender of po­lit­i­cal rights on the in­ter­na­tional stage, more than 3 mil­lion peo­ple who live on the is­land have no power in their own cap­i­tal.

Puerto Rico not only has a fis­cal deficit, it also has a po­lit­i­cal rights deficit, and the two are not eas­ily dis­en­tan­gled. I met with the Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Fi­nan­cial Over­sight and Man­age­ment Board that was im­posed by Congress on Puerto Rico as part of PROMESA. This state­ment is not the place to chal­lenge the eco­nom­ics of the Board’s pro­posed po­lices, but there is lit­tle in­di­ca­tion that so­cial pro­tec­tion con­cerns fea­ture in any sig­nif­i­cant way in the Board’s analy­ses. At a time when even the IMF is in­sist­ing that so­cial pro­tec­tion should be ex­plic­itly fac­tored into pre­scrip­tions for ad­just­ment (i.e. aus­ter­ity) it would seem es­sen­tial that the Board take ac­count of hu­man rights and so­cial pro­tec­tion con­cerns as it con­tem­plates far-reach­ing de­ci­sion on wel­fare re­form, min­i­mum wage and la­bor mar­ket reg­u­la­tion.

It is not for me to sug­gest any res­o­lu­tion to the hotly con­tested is­sue of Puerto Rico’s con­sti­tu­tional sta­tus. But what is clear is that many, prob­a­bly most, Puerto Ri­cans be­lieve deeply that they are presently col­o­nized and that the US Congress is happy to leave them in the no-man’s land of no mean­ing­ful Con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tion and no abil­ity to re­ally move to gov­ern them­selves. In light of re­cent Supreme Court ju­rispru­dence and Congress’s adop­tion of PROMESA there would seem to be good rea­son for the UN De­col­o­niza­tion Com­mit­tee to con­clude that the is­land is no longer a self-gov­ern­ing ter­ri­tory.

* I am grate­ful for the su­perb re­search and anal­y­sis un­der­taken by Christiaan van Veen, Anna Bul­man, Ria Singh Sawh­ney, and staff of the UN Of­fice of the High Com­mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights, as well as the many in­puts made by civil so­ci­ety groups, in­clud­ing those or­ga­nized by the US Hu­man Rights Net­work, and by lead­ing schol­ars in the field.


1. Coun­cil of Eco­nomic Ad­vis­ers, The Long-term De­cline in Prime-age Male La­bor Force Par­tic­i­pa­tion (2016).

2. Charles Varner, Mary­beth Mat­tingly, & David Grusky, ‘The Facts Be­hind the Vi­sions,’ Path­ways, Spring 2017, p. 2.

3. https://www.hudex­change.info/re­sources/doc­u­ments/2017-ahar-part-1.pdf

4. Poverty and Hu­man Rights in Alabama

5. https://www.trea­sury.gov/press-cen­ter/press-releases/doc­u­ments/trea­sury­growth­memo12-11-17.pdf

6.https://ccf.ge­orge­town.edu/2017/08/03/what-ev­ery-pol­i­cy­maker-needs-to-know-about-the-chil­drens-health-in­sur­ance-pro­gram-chip-a-re­fresher/ ; https://www.med­i­caid.gov/chip/down­loads/fy-2016-chil­drens-en­roll­ment-re­port.pdf

7. Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Com­mu­nity Health Cen­ters, http:// www.nachc.org/about-our-health-cen­ters/find-a-health-cen­ter/

8. Ju­lia Par­adise et al, Com­mu­nity Health Cen­ters: Re­cent Growth and the Role of the ACA (18 Jan­uary 2017)

9. Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Com­mu­nity Health Cen­ters, http:// www.nachc.org/wp-con­tent/up­loads/2016/02/nachc-2017-pol­icy-pa­per-fund­ing.pdf

10. Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Com­mu­nity Health Cen­ters, The Health Cen­ter Fund­ing Cliff and its Im­pact, Septem­ber 2017; Peter Shin et al, What are the Pos­si­ble Ef­fects of Fail­ing to Ex­tend the Com­mu­nity Health Cen­ter Fund?, RCHN Com­mu­nity Health Foun­da­tion Re­search Col­lab­o­ra­tive

Pol­icy Re­search Brief # 49 (21 Septem­ber 2017), https://pub­lichealth.gwu.edu/sites/de­fault/files/images/gg%20health%20 Cen­ter%20fund%20brief_9.18_fi­nal.pdf

11. In a writ­ten sub­mis­sion re­ceived by the Spe­cial Rap­por­teur from re­searchers at the Prince­ton Univer­sity Cen­ter for In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy Pol­icy, they write: “The con­cept of AI has been proven to be no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to de­fine. A ba­sic though pop­u­lar def­i­ni­tion of AI refers to “in­tel­li­gence ex­hib­ited by ma­chines” or “the sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing of mak­ing in­tel­li­gent ma­chines.” These def­i­ni­tions as­sume that ‘in­tel­li­gence’ is clearly de­fined it­self, though it, too, is am­bigu­ous. No com­monly agreed upon def­i­ni­tion of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence cur­rently ex­ists.” Avail­able here: http://www.ohchr.org/en/is­sues/poverty/pages/call­forin­put. aspx

12. Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fice of the Pres­i­dent Na­tional Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Coun­cil Com­mit­tee on Tech­nol­ogy’, ‘Pre­par­ing for the Fu­ture of Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence’, Oc­to­ber 2016, p.1.

13. Cathy O’neil, ‘The Ivory Tower Can’t Keep Ig­nor­ing Tech’, 14 Novem­ber 2017, avail­able from: https://www.ny­times. com/2017/11/14/opin­ion/academia-tech-al­go­rithms.html

14. One im­por­tant ex­cep­tion is an ex­cel­lent book that will be pub­lished in Jan­uary: Vir­ginia Eubanks, Au­tomat­ing In­equal­ity: Au­tomat­ing In­equal­ity How High-tech Tools Pro­file, Po­lice, and Pun­ish the Poor (Forth­com­ing, 2018)

15. https://www.lamayor.org/com­pre­hen­sive-home­less­ness-strat­egy

16. https://www.hudex­change.info/re­sources/doc­u­ments/2004hud­dataandtech­ni­cal­stan­dards.pdf

17. The Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Pol­icy Pro­gram (CJPP) at Har­vard Law School, ‘Mov­ing Be­yond Money: A Primer on Bail Re­form’, Oc­to­ber 2016, p. 18.

18. Sandra G. Mayson, ‘Bail Re­form and Re­straint for Danger­ous­ness: Are De­fen­dants a Spe­cial Case?’ Pub­lic Law Re­search Pa­per No. 16-30 Yale Law Jour­nal (Forth­com­ing DO NOT CITE WITH­OUT AU­THOR’S PER­MIS­SION), p.1, avail­able from: https:// pa­pers.ssrn.com/sol3/pa­pers.cfm?ab­strac­t_id=2826600; Hu­man Rights Watch, ‘Not in it for Jus­tice: How Cal­i­for­nia’s Pre­trial De­ten­tion and Bail Sys­tem Un­fairly Pun­ishes Poor Peo­ple’, April 2017, p. 87-88.

19. Hu­man Rights Watch, ‘Not in it for Jus­tice: How Cal­i­for­nia’s Pre­trial De­ten­tion and Bail Sys­tem Un­fairly Pun­ishes Poor Peo­ple’, April 2017, p. 88.

20. Writ­ten sub­mis­sion from the AI Now In­sti­tute: http://www. ohchr.org/en/is­sues/poverty/pages/call­forin­put.aspx

21. Writ­ten sub­mis­sion from Ac­cess Now: http://www.ohchr.org/ En/is­sues/poverty/pages/call­forin­put.aspx

22. West Vir­ginia Cen­ter on Bud­get and Pol­icy & Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee, ‘2016 State of Work­ing West Vir­ginia: Why is West Vir­ginia so Poor?’, p. 55.

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