The United States, extreme poverty and human...
Poverty is an urgent human rights concern. For those living in extreme poverty, many human rights are out of reach. Among many other deprivations, they often lack access to education, health services or safe drinking water and basic sanitation. They are often excluded from participating meaningfully in the political process and seeking justice for violations of their human rights. Extreme poverty can be a cause of specific human rights violations, for instance because the poor are forced to work in environments that are unsafe and unhealthy. At the same time, poverty can also be a consequence of human rights violations, for instance when children are unable to escape poverty because the State does not provide adequate access to education.
Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, published a damning report on poverty in the United States, condemning President Trump’s administration for exacerbating the problem of inequality by rewarding the rich and punishing the poor.
Alston, who toured the United States at the end of last year, condemned the “dramatic change of direction” in U.S. policies as the Trump administration pursues high tax breaks for the rich and slashes welfare benefits for the poor.
“The American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion,” Alston states in the report. “The equality of opportunity, which is so prized in theory, is in practice a myth, especially for minorities and women, but also for many middle-class white workers.” “This is a systematic attack on America’s welfare program that is undermining the social safety net for those who can’t cope on their own. Once you start removing any sense of government commitment, you quickly move into cruelty”
Millions of Americans already struggling to make ends meet faced “ruination”, he warned. “If food stamps and access to Medicaid are removed, and housing subsidies cut, then the effect on people living on the margins will be drastic.” Asked to define “ruination”, Alston said: “Severe deprivation of food and almost no access to healthcare.”
Alston added that “the policies pursued over the past year 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.”
While Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, has launched a scathing attack on the UN monitor on extreme poverty, dismissing his recent report as “misleading and politically motivated” , but the report amounts to one of the most scorching assessments of Trump’s leadership in his 16 months in the White House. It is likely to spark debate across the political aisle as well as globally about the US president’s rapid drive towards heightened inequality.
The Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz told the Guardian it was profoundly important that international observers were speaking out about Trump’s impact. “This administration inherited a bad situation with inequality in the US and is now fanning the flames and worsening the situation. What is so disturbing is that Trump, rather than taking measures to ameliorate the problem, is taking measures to aggravate it.”
As one of the world’s wealthiest societies, the US is what Alston calls a “land of stark contrasts”. It is home to one in four of the world’s 2,208 billionaires. At the other end of the spectrum, 40 million Americans live in poverty and 18.5 million of those live in extreme poverty. In addition, vast numbers of middle class Americans are perched on the edge, with 40% of the adult population saying they would be unable to cover an unexpected $400 expense.
It should be said that The United States has the highest inequality of the richest nations. It has the highest incarceration rate by far. It has among the highest child mortality rates. It has the highest youth poverty rate. It has one of the lowest levels of voter registration in the rich countries. In essence, it scores extremely poorly on almost all of the comparative measures when compared with other developed states.