U.N. Investigator Issues Ominous Report On American Poverty

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Philip Alston said extreme poverty in the U.S. is the result of a "political choice made by those in power."

Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, released his report on poverty in the United States, and his words paint a grim picture for the most vulnerable people living in such a rich country.

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.

Of particular note is the way that stereotypes surrounding poor people are used to justify taking away their assistance:

"So the rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic and the drivers of economic success. The poor, on the other hand, are wasters, losers and scammers," Alston told NPR. 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."

Alston spoke to various situations he encountered on his tour of the U.S., from people missing teeth due to lack of dental insurance to finding raw sewage in people's front yards.

"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."

By the end of his reporting, Alston seemed sure that the continued degree of U.S. poverty - which encompassed 1 in 8 Americans in 2016 - is not by accident but the result of a lack of political will.

"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." ...

"There is no magic recipe for eliminating extreme poverty, and each level of government must make its own good faith decisions," says Alston. "But 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."