A United Nations independent expert presented a searing indictment of the wealth gap in the United States, saying that “contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound” and that the Republican tax plan “is essentially a bid to make the U.S. the world champion of extreme inequality.”
The recent statement by Philip Alston, U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, follows his two-week visit to Alabama, California, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington D.C.. Based on the fact-finding mission, he said, “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.”
Regarding the tax plan Congress is considering, Alston said, “The dramatic cuts in welfare, foreshadowed by the President and [House] 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. It is against this background that my report is presented.”
While noting that he “saw much that is positive,” Alston detailed everyday situations across the nation that indicated how residents’ fundamental rights are trampled upon:
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, I heard how thousands of poor people get minor infraction notices which seem to be intentionally designed to quickly explode into unpayable debt, incarceration, and the replenishment of municipal coffers, I saw sewage filled yards in states where governments don’t consider sanitation facilities to be their responsibility, I saw people who had lost all of their teeth because adult dental care is not covered by the vast majority of programs available to the very poor, I heard about soaring death rates and family and community destruction wrought by prescription and other drug addiction, and I met with people in the South of Puerto Rico living next to a mountain of completely unprotected coal ash which rains down upon them bringing illness, disability and death.
In a bulleted list of indications that outcomes in the U.S. are at odds with idea of “American exceptionalism,” he noted, among other things, that
- U.S. inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries;
- U.S. infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world;
- America has the highest incarceration rate in the world;
- In terms of access to water and sanitation the US ranks 36th in the world.
The country, he said, is international outlier in that it insists human rights “do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable healthcare, or growing up in a context of total deprivation.”
In addition to speaking with civil society groups, Alston spoke with politicians and political appointees. Some of them, he said, clung to “caricatured narratives” of who the wealthy and poor are—narratives that falsely portray the rich as industrious, and the poor as lazy people who merely need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps in oder to make it.
“I wonder how many of these politicians have ever visited poor areas, let alone spoken to those who dwell there,” he stated.
He highlighted the systemic obstacles to voting, whether through overt disenfranchisement, like barring felons from voting, or covert disenfranchisement, like gerrymandering and needless voter ID laws.
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Citing Census Bureau data, he said that more than one in every eight Americans—40 million people—live in poverty. That’s a population that has been demonized and “is becoming a more deprived and destitute class,” he stated. And that high figure appears to be by design.
He added: “at the end of the day, particularly in a rich country like the USA, the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power. With political will, it could readily be eliminated.”
Doing so requires “democratic decision-making, full employment policies, social protection for the vulnerable, a fair and effective justice system, gender and racial equality, and respect for human dignity, responsible fiscal policies, and environmental justice.” “Currently,” Alston said, “the United States falls far short on each of these issues.”