Saturday, June 02, 2018

America - A Failing Nation

Donald Trump is deliberately forcing millions of Americans into financial ruin, cruelly depriving them of food and other basic protections while lavishing vast riches on the super-wealthy Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur who acts as a watchdog on extreme poverty around the world, has stated. Trump is steering the country towards a “dramatic change of direction” that is rewarding the rich and punishing the poor by blocking access even to the most meager necessities.

“This is a systematic attack on America’s welfare program that is undermining the social safety net for those who can’t cope on their own. Once you start removing any sense of government commitment, you quickly move into cruelty,” Alston told the Guardian. Millions of Americans already struggling to make ends meet faced “ruination”, he warned. “If food stamps and access to Medicaid are removed, and housing subsidies cut, then the effect on people living on the margins will be drastic.” Asked to define “ruination”, Alston said: “Severe deprivation of food and almost no access to healthcare.”

His findings are based on a tour he carried out in December through some of America’s most destitute communities, from Skid Row in Los Angeles, through poor African American areas in Alabama, and the stricken coal country of West Virginia, to hurricane-racked Puerto Rico. The UN monitor censured Trump and the Republicans in Congress for passing a tax bill that “overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy and worsened inequality”. Alston added that “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”. He cautioned 'middle-class' Americans from thinking they were immune from the lash of such policies, as Trump’s assault “bodes ill for society as a whole. The proposed slashing of social protection benefits will affect the 'middle classes' every bit as much as the poor.”

The UN rapporteur identifies a slew of what he calls “aggressively regressive” policies coming out of the Trump administration that are sending the country “full steam ahead” towards greater inequality. In addition to the tax breaks, there are new work requirements for welfare recipients, cuts of up to a third in the food stamp program, a recent proposal from housing secretary Ben Carson to triple the base rent for federally subsidized housing, and a burning of government regulations that offered protections to middle-class and poor families.

 “This is an across the board attack on those who are living on the poverty line or below it,” Alston said. The UN monitor contends that what amounts to Trump’s punishment of low-income Americans is based on an unfounded assumption that such people are lazy, work-shy and dedicated to defrauding the welfare system. Several senior government officials told Alston during his tour that scamming by welfare recipients was rampant, yet little convincing evidence was provided to support that caricature, he notes in his report.

Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz told the Guardian it was profoundly important that international observers were speaking out about Trump’s impact. “This administration inherited a bad situation with inequality in the US and is now fanning the flames and worsening the situation. What is so disturbing is that Trump, rather than taking measures to ameliorate the problem, is taking measures to aggravate it.  Can you believe a country where the life expectancy is already in decline, particularly among those whose income is limited, giving tax breaks to billionaires and corporations while leaving millions of Americans without health insurance?” Stiglitz said. 

The Federal Reserve annual economic survey released last week underlines the large pool of people who are vulnerable to any further erosion of the safety net. It found that four out of 10 Americans are so hard up they could not cover an emergency expense of $400 without borrowing money or selling possessions.

As one of the world’s wealthiest societies, the US is what Alston calls a “land of stark contrasts”. It is home to one in four of the world’s 2,208 billionaires. At the other end of the spectrum, 40 million Americans live in poverty. More than five million eke out an existence amid the kind of absolute deprivation normally associated with the developing world.

The symptoms of such glaring inequality include:
  • Americans now live shorter and sicker lives than citizens of other rich democracies;
  • Tropical diseases that flourish in conditions of poverty are on the rise;
  • The US incarceration rate remains the highest in the world;
  • Voter registration levels are among the lowest in industrialised nations – 64% of the voting-age population, compared with 91% in Canada and the UK and 99% in Japan.
Last year the IMF, a world body not renowned for being hyper-critical of countries that fail the poor, said: “The US economy is delivering better living standards for only the few. Household incomes are stagnating, job opportunities are deteriorating, prospects for upward mobility are waning and economic gains are increasingly accruing to those that are already wealthy.”

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