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A U.N. Poverty Expert Breaks Down the Sorry State of Economic Equality in America

New York University law professor Philip Alston offers a sharp criticism of U.S. policymakers' response to poverty.
A makeshift homeless encampment in Los Angeles, California.

A makeshift homeless encampment in Los Angeles, California.

For the last two weeks, Philip Alston, a professor at the New York University School of Law and a United Nations special rapporteur on poverty and human rights, has been on a fact-finding tour of the United States' poorest communities. Alston visited neighborhoods in rural Alabama where raw sewage sits in open trenches and pits. He spent time at a free dental clinic in West Virginia, where he met a 32-year-old whose teeth have all but rotted away. He saw a homeless encampment in Los Angeles where the ratio of toilets to residents is lower than the U.N. mandate for Syrian refugee camps. Today, Alston released a sharply critical preliminary report summarizing his findings. American exceptionalism may be alive and well, Alston concludes, but "today's United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights."

When it comes to poverty rates and other measures of deprivation, the U.S. is a stark outlier among other developed countries. Despite its status as one of the world's wealthiest countries, the U.S. has the highest infant mortality rates in the developed world, the worst health outcomes, the highest incarceration rate, the highest youth poverty rate, one of the highest rates of inequality, and one of the lowest rates of voter participation. Eighteen percent of American children in 2016 were living in poverty, with rates in some states as high as 30 percent.

Politicians opposed to expanding the social safety net have leaned heavily on a certain false narrative about poor Americans to justify cuts to welfare and other social programs, according to Alston. "Some politicians and political appointees with whom I spoke were completely sold on the narrative of such scammers sitting on comfortable sofas, watching color TVs, while surfing on their smartphones, all paid for by welfare," he writes. "I wonder how many of these politicians have ever visited poor areas, let alone spoken to those who dwell there. There are anecdotes aplenty, but evidence is nowhere to be seen."

Alston is similarly scathing in his assessment of the U.S. policy response to poverty, and he claims that politicians could easily eliminate poverty in America. The solutions aren't even that mysterious; as Alston writes, the rest of the developed world has already identified the necessary components: "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." The U.S. is, in Alston's estimation, currently falling far short in every single one of these categories.

Nor is Alston particularly enthused about the tax reform legislation that the GOP is currently about to pass, or efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or Congress' ongoing failure to fund the Children's Health Insurance Program, or the cuts to the social safety net that some Republican legislatures say they plan to tackle next.

"The proposed tax reform package 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," Alston writes. "The 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."

Much of what Alston reports won't actually surprise those who closely follow issues of poverty, inequality, and social justice in America. But the report's relentless, relatively comprehensive assessment of the shocking depths of poverty in one of the wealthiest nations in the world means it should be required reading for every single American.