In a scathing report, the United Nations denounces “Third World conditions” in the U.S. Politicians are capable of tackling the extreme poverty there, but do not want to.
Of the world’s 2,208 billionaires, one quarter live in the United States. They share the country with 5.3 million Americans who live in “absolute poverty” and another 35 million living in conditions of “poverty or extreme poverty.” Together, they comprise 14 percent of the American population, according to a report by the United Nations on extreme poverty in the country.
The U.N. speaks of conditions that exist predominantly in developing nations and is exceptionally critical of American politicians and Donald Trump’s administration in particular. “There is…a dramatic contrast between the immense wealth of the few and the squalor and deprivation in which vast numbers of Americans exist,” writes rapporteur Philip Alston. “For almost five decades the overall policy response has been neglectful at best, but the policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship.”
Last December, the U.S. government resolved to implement $1.5 trillion in tax cuts. These benefit primarily the wealthiest Americans, and increase inequality in what is already the most unequal country in the West, states Alston. The government funds the tax cuts partly by making cuts to social welfare benefits for the poorest, the Australian attorney specializing in human rights points out.
The American Dream
The U.N. rapporteur also expresses indignation over the image evoked by politicians and certain media in which the wealthy are industrious, entrepreneurial and patriotic, while the poor are scammers and lazy failures. “As a result, money spent on welfare is money down the drain,” he writes cynically. “If the poor really want to make it in the United States, they can easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough.”
However, in the United States, there is less social mobility, summarized as the chance that children will be better off than their parents, than in most other developed countries, according to research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Based on his conversations with U.S. elected representatives, Alston concludes that many of them are convinced that welfare recipients are profiteers, though he “wonders how many of those politicians have ever visited poor areas, let alone spoken to those who dwell there.”
Land of the Incarcerated
The U.N. report is full of grim statistics, such as the fact that the U.S. has the highest child mortality rate among all the wealthy countries that make up the OECD. Its citizens live shorter lives, and are less healthy than those in other wealthy democracies.
The U.S. also incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. “Punishing and imprisoning the poor is the distinctively American response to poverty in the twenty-first century,” Alston writes. “Workers who cannot pay their debts … the homeless, the mentally ill, fathers who cannot pay child support and many others are all locked up.”
Mass incarceration renders societal problems temporarily invisible, and gives the false impression that something has been achieved, he contends. It costs the public a lot of money and destroys families. “In the United States, it is poverty that needs to be arrested, not the poor simply for being poor … A cheaper and more humane option is to provide proper social protection and facilitate the return to the workforce of those who are able,” says Alston.
The persistence of extreme poverty in the U.S. is a political choice by those in power, the U.N. rapporteur concludes. “With political will, it could readily be eliminated.”