The UN Spe­cial Rap­por­teur In­ves­ti­ga­tion into Ex­treme Poverty in the U.S.

Trillions - - Contents -

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 Tril­ 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.”

In­dige­nous Peo­ples

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.

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