The US definition of poverty varies, but a commonly used measure from 2015 is an annual income of US$12,082 (S$16,100) or less.
Forty-one million Americans live in poverty - 12.7 per cent of the country's population. Some 46 per cent of those live in "deep poverty" - on an annual income below US$6,165. Among them are 1.5 million households, including 2.8 million children, who live in extreme poverty or on less than US$2 per person per day. "These are people who cannot find work ... who do not qualify for any other (welfare) programmes or who may live in remote areas. They are disconnected from both the safety net and the job market," Dr Premilla Nadasen, author and professor at Barnard College in New York City, wrote.
Philip Alston, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, explained "In a poor country, there are two starting points - that there are social rights, and citizens have a right to healthcare, a right to education, a right to food," Dr Alston told The Straits Times in an interview in his book-lined office at New York University
"Second, the only thing standing in our way is resources; we just don't have the money."
"In the US, it's the exact opposite," he said. "There's no such thing as social rights. If people are living in abysmal conditions, it's their fault because we have equality of opportunity.
"Secondly, it's not a resource problem. We just found US$1.5 trillion to give to the super rich. The money would have been there to eliminate poverty if there had been any political will. But there isn't."
In Los Angeles, he found that the objective for the local authorities was to raise the standard of Skid Row, an area less than a square kilometre but containing many hundred homeless, to that of a Syrian refugee camp. "One of the richest countries in the world, and we're aiming to meet the standards of a Syrian refugee camp for a large population in one of our richest cities," he said. "It is sort of stunning."
"Caricatured narratives" drive the debate on poverty and homelessness in America, according to Dr Alston. The rich are seen as "industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic, and the drivers of economic success". The poor are "wasters, losers and scammers". "As long as you have the mindset that we're all on our own, it becomes possible that when my own brother falls off the cliff, I'm able to say, 'Well, he had the same opportunities as me. He's failed, he has to cope with it,' instead of saying, 'I can't let that happen. I've got to do something,'. "
America's wealth gap has been steadily widening. On average in 1981, the top 1 per cent of adult Americans earned 27 times more than the bottom 50 per cent. Today, they earn 81 times more. Meanwhile, since the 1970s, the safety net has been considerably diminished.
Dr Nadasen wrote, "Labour regulations protecting workers have been rolled back, and funding for education and public programmes has declined. The poor have been the hardest hit." She added: "The shredding of the safety net led to a rise in poverty. The United States has the highest child poverty rates - 25 per cent - in the developed world."
Alston saw houses in rural areas of Alabama surrounded by pools of sewage. "The state health department had no idea how many households exist in these conditions, nor did they have any plan to find out, or devise a plan to do something about it," he says in his statement. He could not help noticing that most of the area's residents were black. But while racial divisions are not far below the surface, it would be misleading to assume that poverty is generally worse in the Native American and African American minorities. It cuts across all ethnicities. There are eight million more poor white people than black people.