Philip Alston, an Australian law professor and a United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wanted to know, Just how bad is poverty in the United States. Alston undertook his expedition with a series of questions: "Are those in poverty able to live with dignity? What does a government do to protect those who are most vulnerable?" To gather information, he traveled to Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Alabama, Puerto Rico and West Virginia. He talked to poverty experts, civil society organizations, government officials and regular people born or thrust into poverty.
After two weeks of investigating, Alston has released his preliminary findings. The American dream, he says, is an "American illusionas the U.S. … now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries.” In 1981, the top 1 percent of adults earned on average 27 times more than the bottom 50 percent of adults. Today the top 1 percent earn 81 times more than the bottom 50 percent."
Alston says "The face of poverty in America is not only black or Hispanic but also white, Asian and many other colors." To be sure, poverty in the United States is not equivalent to poverty in less developed countries. The USA has never been a country free of inequality and poverty, but their rapid growth over the past two decades has undermined any professed commitment to equal opportunity or the belief that the nation’s prosperity rests on the well-being of ordinary Americans. Since the 1970s, the safety net has been diminished considerably. Labor regulations protecting workers have been rolled back, and funding for education and public programs has declined. The poor have been the hardest hit. With welfare reform in 1996, poor single parents with children now have a lifetime limit of five years of assistance and mandatory work requirements. Some states require fingerprinting or drug testing of applicants, which effectively criminalizes them without cause. The obstacles to getting on welfare are formidable, the benefits meager.Declining wages at the lower end of the economic ladder make it harder for people to save for times of crisis or to get back on their feet. A full-time, year-round minimum wage worker, often employed in a dead-end job, falls below the poverty threshold for a family of three and often has to rely on food stamps. One and a half million American households live in extreme poverty today, nearly twice as many as 20 years ago.
He found that stereotypes serve to undermine the poor — and are used to justify notcoming to their aid. "So the rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic and the drivers of economic success. The poor, on the other hand, are wasters, losers and scammers." As a result, he says, many people believe that "money spent on welfare is money down the drain. Money devoted to the rich is a sound investment." He spoke to politicians and political appointees who 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."
Alston says he met people working full-time at chain stores who needed food stamps because they couldn't survive on their wages. He was shocked by the type of poverty he witnessed: "I saw sewage-filled yards in states where governments don't consider sanitation facilities to be their responsibility." In rural Alabama, parts of the state are seeing the first outbreak of hookworm–a blood-eating parasite that invades the body on contact with feces, common in the developing world–in decades. And "people who had lost all of their teeth" because dental care wasn't covered by their health insurance plans. And homeless people who were told to move by a police officer who had "no answer when asked where they could move to." "People in the U.S. seem particularly unable to stomach the sight of homeless," he says, "yet are unwilling to enact policies to help them."
Forty million Americans live in poverty, nearly half in deep poverty — which U.N. investigators defined as people reporting income less than one-half of the poverty threshold. The United States has the highest child poverty rates — 25 percent — in the developed world. Then there are the extremely poor who live on less than $2 per day per person and don’t have access to basic human services such as sanitation, shelter, education and health care. These are people who cannot find work, who have used up their five-year lifetime limit on assistance, who do not qualify for any other programs or who may live in remote areas. Average life expectancy is falling for the first time since 1993. The U.S. ranks 36th in the world for access to water and sanitation. We rank 35th out of 37 richer countries for poverty and inequality. Our incarceration rate–about five times the OECD average–saps economic opportunity, reduces turnout in elections, and hides poverty from view, Alston says. (The poverty line is about $24,000 a year for a family of four; 18.5 million Americans have family income of only half that.)
"While funding for the IRS to audit wealthy taxpayers has been reduced, efforts to identify welfare fraud are being greatly intensified," he says. The wealthy also stand to benefit from advances in technology, while robots and automation threaten to take away jobs from people in low-skill labor positions, he says. Alston also criticized the Republican tax reform bill that just passed in Congress. He says it "stakes out America's bid to become the most unequal society in the world." The tax bill promises to further exacerbate the problem by providing generous tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, modest tax cuts for many middle-class families and decreased spending on programs that help the poor, which currently constitute only 1.5 percent of federal outlays.The share of wealth going to the top 1% of earners has risen from 22% in 1980 to 39% in 2014, according to the recently published World Inequality Report. Most of that wealth has gone to the top 0.1% of earners. Alston explains, local governments increasingly lack the resources to take on social problems in their areas because taxation has been demonized as “inherently evil” and “legislatures effectively refuse to levy taxes even when there is a desperate need...Given the extensive and, in some cases, unremitting cuts that have been made in recent years, the consequences for an already overstretched and inadequate system of social protection are likely to be fatal for many programs, and possibly also for those who rely upon them,” Alston says.
The poor may not even be able to use the Internet. Alston states that nearly half of all people living in West Virginia lack access to high speed Internet. "When I asked the governor's office in West Virginia about efforts to expand broadband access in poor, rural communities, it could only point to a 2010 broadband expansion effort," he says in the statement. It's not that they don't want it; half of the state's counties have reportedly applied for broadband assistance. The U.N. considers the Internet to be a human right for its ability to support education, drive development and foster citizen engagement, among other things.
He concludes that American innovation, money, and power isn't being channeled to address poverty — and there is a lot of poverty to address. In 2016, 40 million people — more than one in eight citizens — lived in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. "The reality is that the United States now has probably the lowest degree of social mobility among all the rich countries," Alston says. "And if you are born poor, guess where you're going to end up —- poor...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."