An Unsettling Mirror: US Poverty & Human Rights According to the UN
Sometimes we need an outsider’s perspective to shake us awake to our own dysfunctions.
After two weeks touring America, Special Rapporteur Dr. Philip Alston held up a damning mirror on the world’s wealthiest nation. Against the backdrop of so called tax-reform — which Alston claims “stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world” — his report released on December 15 outlines the Orwellian landscape of the land that boasts of opportunity.
Below, I’ve drawn out some key stats and quotes, but the piece isn’t unapproachably long and is well worth the read. Alston’s argument challenges Americans to reconsider the lenses and assumptions we’ve used to describe and address poverty.
Fundamentally, he exposes the implications of American disregard for the principle that economic and social rights are full-fledged human rights.
We’ve done so despite internationally agreement (Universal Declaration of Human Rights,) and even our own ratification of documents like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, around these ideas. Instead, we’ve substituted unsubstantiated notions of 1) who the poor are and what caused their situation, 2) criminalization and scapegoating, 3) a dramatic over-emphasis on work as the solution, 4) an unfounded sense of American exceptionalism (we’re at the bottom of most quality-of-life statistics among developed nations), and 5) the equally unfounded expectation that the solution to a poor person’s worries lay largely in their own hands.
Without a national culture that declares “dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable healthcare, or growing up in a context of total deprivation” as violations of human rights and outright failure of a government to its people, we lack the policy and social will to repair our
Alston explained that in his travels, “the rich [were presented as] industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic, and the drivers of economic success. The poor are wasters, losers, and scammers…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.”
If this is true, then further eviscerating our already shoddy safety net is either monumentally ignorant or intentionally designed to further ulterior motives. He provides stark images of where this will lead
Alston met with the Western Regional Advocacy Project in San Francisco, a group of homeless advocates we collaborate with in efforts to decriminalize homelessness and shift the paradigms around that issue. I was excited to read him repeat the language our movement uses: “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.”
American policy makers are running full tilt on a bankrupt philosophy that’s running our nation into the group — first the poor and vulnerable, but, as inequalities soar, ultimately for all of us. There’s an internal coherence and deflective force-field to their logic that guards it from outside critique. Reports like this are unlikely to get through to powerful people who don’t already agree.
The more frightening consideration is that it might not get through to “we the people” either. So many of us have been coopted into cycles of disdain and self-interest (despite largely failing to deliver on its promises), that our worldview-political-structural complexes (what William Connolly piercingly dubbed the "evangelical/capitalist resonance machine") may be so convoluted and self-reinforcing that they’ve become unsalvageable. Or, maybe, insights like Alston’s can paint the way forward.
In either case, this report allows us see the quagmire we’ve placed ourselves in with startling clarity.
Some Stats of Note:
- There are 40 million people living in poverty in the US. 8 million more of these are white than Black, which Black poverty
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.