Extreme Poverty Pervasive In America, And Has Spread

A small tent city in the plaza of a federal office building in Eugene, Oregon.

“Finish all your food. There’s a child down the block who would be thrilled to have that food on your plate.”

As Premilla Nadasen notes in her piece for the Washington Post, for many Americans the idea of extreme poverty seems like a far-off problem for countries that most will never step foot in. But the reality is that American society has its own poverty problems that affect tens of millions of people every day.

In an effort to determine the scope of the problem and propose solutions, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, recently issued his report on the state of America's poor.

The rise in poverty, they found, disproportionately affects people of color and women, but also large swaths of white Americans. The report concluded that the pervasiveness of poverty and inequality “are shockingly at odds with [the United States’] immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights.”

How did we get here?

[S]ince 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. The number of families on welfare declined from 4.6 million in 1996 to 1.1 million this year. The decline of the welfare rolls has not meant a decline in poverty, however.

The result has been an increase in the number of Americans living in poverty - a total that currently sits at over 40 million people - including 25 percent of America's children.

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. They are disconnected from both the safety net and the job market.

Apart from the slashing of safety nets, rising inequality is a major factor in U.S. poverty numbers.

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.

As observed in the U.N. report,

“The American Dream is rapidly becoming the American Illusion, as the U.S. … now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries.”

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