The U.S. views itself as the exceptional nation, the beacon of liberty and justice for the world. In the popular imagination, it is the land of plenty where everyone can thrive, the land of opportunity where anybody who works hard enough can realize the dreams of their heart. But is this really so or just a comforting illusion?
For two weeks this past autumn, Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, sought to find out, traveling over the U.S. to assess the state of extreme poverty in this country and its impact on human rights. His travels brought him to California, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., as well as Puerto Rico. His report, published in mid-December by the Office of the UN’s High Commissioner of Human Rights, pulls the curtains on the illusions this country cherishes about itself and reveals the startling truth about where we stand and where we are headed.
Wherever he went Alston met people living at the edge of survival: homeless people on Skid Row in Los Angeles; unemployed workers forced into unpayable debt; families and communities devastated by the scourge of drug addiction; people who lost all their teeth because they did not have access to dental care. In the American South he saw yards filled with sewage because state governments don’t consider it their obligation to provide sanitation. Native American tribes told him about their degrading poverty, cultural debasement, and shocking suicide rates. In Puerto Rico, decimated by Hurricane Maria, he met people living next to a mountain of coal ash, which brings them illness, disability, and death.
Numerous studies have shown that along with its wealth and technological achievements, the U.S. also stands out by its extreme levels of economic inequality. Some 40 million people—12.7% of the population—live in poverty; almost half of these, 18 million, in deep poverty, with family incomes below half the poverty line. Infant mortality rates in the U.S. have been among the highest in the developed world. Americans live shorter and sicker lives than people in other affluent democracies. On scales measuring poverty, social safety provisions, wealth inequality, and economic mobility, the U.S. comes last among the ten most well-off countries and eighteenth among the top 21. Yet lack of financial clout is not the problem, for the U.S. spends more on national defense than the next seven countries combined, has the highest expenditures on healthcare, and the highest rate of incarceration.
Alston points out that poverty has become so widespread in the U.S. because successive administrations have refused to recognize that economic and social rights are full-fledged human rights. International law affirms that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including health care, food, work, and social protection in times of need. While these rights are often trampled upon by more repressive regimes, among the economically developed democracies the U.S. is virtually alone in callously disregarding them. It stands out in the extent to which it allows its citizens to suffer from food insecurity, homelessness, lack of access to affordable healthcare, and lack of suitable housing. Due to cutbacks in basic services, poverty has become a trap—a trap into which anyone can fall, and from which it is extremely hard to escape. Thus, according to Alston, “The American Dream is rapidly becoming the American Illusion as the U.S. now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries.”
Policies stacked against the poor are, according to the report, driven by “caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between the rich and poor.” The rich are depicted as industrious and responsible, the poor as wasters, losers, and scammers. This picture is pushed by politicians to justify slashing funds for programs that provide for the basic needs of the poor, cutting holes in an already tattered safety net. Behind this strategy, Alston observes, is a racist agenda which suggests, by innuendo, that the poor who are depleting the country’s resources are African Americans or Hispanic immigrants. Yet, while poverty is proportionally higher among these racial groups, the reality is that, numerically, the majority of the poor are whites.
The most compelling point that Alston makes in his report is about the political underpinnings of poverty in America. The persistence of extreme poverty, he contends, is not caused by impersonal factors beyond our control but stems from “a political choice made by those in power”; and since that is so, “with political will, it could readily be eliminated.” He explores in detail the measures that should be adopted to eliminate poverty, chief among which is a commitment to genuine democratic decision-making.
American democracy, he writes, is steadily and systematically being eroded by such policies as the imposition of stringent voter ID requirements, the disenfranchisement of felons, the gerrymandering of electoral districts, and the ramping up of other measures that deprive poor people, especially minorities, of their voting rights. But the failure of successive administrations to provide effective remedies to poverty also undermines democratic participation. As one state official in West Virginia told Alston, “When people are poor they just give up on the electoral system.” This, Alston suggests, could be one reason that political elites are disposed to keep people in poverty.
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Perhaps the most shocking statistics that Alston cites concern the extent of poverty among American children. In 2016, 18% of children—that’s almost one in five—were living in poverty, with children comprising a third of all people in poverty. Around 21% of those experiencing homelessness are children. Poverty is also distributed differently according to gender, with women bearing the heaviest load. Cuts in social services increase the burden on women, with a correspondingly negative impact on their children. In 1995 fewer than 100,000 children in single-mother households lived in extreme poverty; in 2012 the number was over 700,000. Alston points out that “male-dominated legislatures rarely pay any heed to this consequence of the welfare cutbacks they impose.”
Alston prepared his report just as Congress was getting ready to push through its sweeping program of tax reforms, which sharply reduce taxes on wealthy corporations and confer the lion’s share of the benefits on the ultra-rich. He notes that this package, which has since been passed, “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.” Now that the package has been approved, along a strict party-line vote, we can expect to see levels of inequality rise still higher. Moreover, as the deficit increases because of the huge tax cuts, the campaign against the poor is likely to become even harsher. As Alston notes, “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.”
Though the short-term future may appear bleak, the report lays out in clear and simple terms the policy measures that need to be adopted to reverse glaring inequalities in wealth and income. Perhaps what the report does not state as explicitly as it could have done is the moral dimension of poverty in the midst of immense wealth. Political decisions flow from moral commitments, and thus the decisions that produce and sustain poverty, as made by elected officials, reflect a crisis in public morality. To enact policies that enrich the corporate and financial elite by undermining the economic and social welfare of ordinary people shows that the moral compass of our country’s leaders has gone awry. For this reason a redeeming change in the direction we are taking will require that our leaders consider more astutely the moral implications of their policies. Is it right to turn the U.S. into a country in which a handful of billionaires have more money than they know what to do with while children die from easily treatable illnesses, women work two jobs just to feed their kids, and whole families live in homeless shelters? Is that the best we can do?
The pressing need right now is to reverse the trend toward growing inequality—with all the liabilities that entails—and to create a more just, more equitable, more caring society. With the right policy choices, we can create a social order in which no one needs to be living at the edge of an abyss, in which no one needs to endure the immense suffering and personal degradation brought on by poverty.
However, since it is we the people who elect our representatives, we too are faced with the need to make the right choices. It is up to us to decide what kind of country we wish to live in—one that privileges certain people because of their wealth, class status, race, and religion, or one that ensures everyone can flourish to the best of their capacities. To act responsibly we’ll have to be prepared to face the illusions that have been driving us down a ruinous path.
This may be painful, for illusions usually provide a measure of comfort; but in the end discarding them is our best hope. We’ll need a more accurate, more truthful understanding of the policies that affect our lives. We’ll need too a change of heart, from narrow self-interest toward concern for the common good, from selfishness toward compassion. On that basis we’ll be able to make the wise choices, the moral choices, that will help us to realize together our professed ideals.