For two weeks at the end of last year, Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty crisscrossed the United States, speaking to communities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Lowndes County and Montgomery, Alabama, Charleston, West Virginia, and San Juan, Guayama and Salinas, Puerto Rico and meeting with indigenous leaders and community activists gathered at the US Human Rights Network national convening in Atlanta, Georgia. Last Friday, he issued his official report on the visit.
While the report’s findings are not surprising, they are still jarring. Almost 1 in 5 children in the United States lives in poverty. People in the United States live shorter and sicker lives than people living in countries with comparable wealth, we have the highest incarceration rates in the world, and tropical diseases like hookworm are re-emerging because of lack of public sewage in places like Lowndes County.
But perhaps more troubling than the findings is Alston’s conclusion that rather than working to eradicate poverty, government policies are actually making things worse. The Special Rapporteur loudly calls out the Trump administration’s recent $1.5 trillion tax cut, attempts to take away health insurance, and radical financial, environmental, and health and safety deregulation.
But Alston makes clear that wrongheaded government policies and attitudes towards social welfare precede the current administration: the “United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that . . . human rights . . . 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.” Our failure to recognize social and economic rights has led to the abdication of government responsibility to provide a safety net and basic community necessities like sewage systems and clean water.
We have also failed to adequately address historic and long-standing structural discrimination which result in persistent disparities in poverty rates based on race and gender. These inequalities are compounded by the legal status of immigrants, indigenous people and the people of Puerto Rico. For these communities, lack of legal protection, recognition, and political representation exacerbate poverty and vulnerability to other human rights abuses.
In the U.S., rather than developing policies to help alleviate poverty, criminalization has been used to conceal the problem. According to Alston “[p]unishing and imprisoning the poor [has become] a distinctively American response to poverty in the twenty-first century.” The report describes criminalization of homelessness, taking away children from their parents because poverty is equated with neglect, criminalization of pregnant women suspected of substance abuse problems, and detaining poor people in jail, separating them from their families and risking their employment, because they can’t make bail. “Mass incarceration is used to make social problems temporarily invisible and to create the mirage of something having been done.” But it is a self-defeating strategy.
Alston recognizes that it is impossible to do an in-depth analysis of extreme poverty in the United States. His goal was a more modest one: to access whether the United States is living up to its human rights obligations (it’s not) and articulate important principles for reform including: decriminalizing being poor, recognizing a right to health care and reforming tax policy. But he doesn’t provide great detail about how to eliminate extreme poverty and how to gain support for anti-poverty initiatives in our current political environment.
Indeed, the report reveals a deeper dis-function in our society and democracy that may make such change more difficult. The U.S. currently has the highest income inequality in the developed world, and it is only getting worse. And “[s]ince economic and political power reinforce one another,” Alston warns that “the political system will be even more vulnerable to capture by wealthy elites.” Addressing our long history of racism and inequality as well as newer problems like dislocation and lack of decent jobs in the face of globalization and changes in technology require more fundamental changes addressing who is making decisions and how.
In its recent report, the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, emphasizes that we must rebuild democracy from the ground up and work to develop policies based on human rights values and the creation of universal and equitable social systems that meet the needs of all. Deep democracy requires wresting decision-making out of the hands of the powerful few and “community control over the agencies and institutions that shape people’s lives.” According to the report, community engagement is not only essential for democracy; it is also the best way to develop sustainable policy solutions that serve the needs of our communities.
The Special Rapporteur’s report is important and timely, but only scratches the surface of the human rights violations that many communities are facing. By starting a dialogue about the government’s obligation to end extreme poverty, I hope the report will encourage communities to speak out about the human rights violations they face and to develop and demand community-driven solutions that respect human rights values and ensure that everyone, rich and poor, can lead a safe, healthy and dignified life.