The United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has published his report on the state of poverty in the U.S. after a lengthy visit last year documenting the growing disparity between America’s rich and poor.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Philip Alston – who said he had not expected the U.S. would require an investigation upon taking his role – described what he encountered on his tour of the U.S. as well as the negative impact President Donald Trump’s policies are likely to have on America’s poor.
I started off in California, where the emphasis was on homelessness. I then flew over to Alabama, where the focus was on racial differences and the failure to provide even basic services, like sanitation, in areas that were very close to large cities. What was shocking was that even basic sewage facilities are not provided, and so I saw open sewage flowing into back gardens. And that is just something you sort of expect in a low-income developing country, but you don’t expect it in the United States.
Moving on to Puerto Rico, Alston said he found people living “without any real access to the basic services that we’ve come to expect”, and the government is failing to provide social services to those most in need.
The situation was very grim, even before Hurricane Maria, but obviously exacerbated greatly after it. I’m told I’m not supposed to use the term, but certainly, the conditions were very much Third World.
And none of this is by accident, Alston said – conservative ideology and policies are driving the wedge deeper between the rich and poor in America.
Asked if Trump’s policies are deliberately exacerbating the situation, Alston said it certainly seems intentional, indicating it’s difficult to read tax cuts for the wealthy and funding cuts to the social safety net as anything other than an “attempt to punish the poor”.
So my sense is that these are two of the major priorities of the administration [and] when they’re put together, it does indeed seem to be a very deliberate attempt to punish the poor.
I think the assumption is that poor people are, by definition, lazy and undeserving and the appropriate response of government is to punish them and to provide as little as possible. That’s what’s driving most of government policy on this issue.
This assumption – that the poor are lazy and undeserving – has a long history in the United States, and it is one that baffles the UN official.
Wealthy Americans receive far more benefits from the government than the poor, he said, yet those benefits are viewed as morally acceptable.
There’s been a systematic effort by conservatives to stigmatize and delegitimize what Americans call welfare — the notion that anyone who is receiving money from the government is shameful and offensive. Yet the rich receive vastly more money from the government, and that’s not considered shameful. I have a mortgage on a house in the United States, and I get immense tax benefits from that, probably in excess of anything I would get if I were on welfare. But that’s not shameful; that’s considered somehow to be my entitlement.
But someone who is extremely sick, or unemployed or in other ways in difficulty gets basic benefits or assistance from the government, it is not considered to be their right or their entitlement as it would be in Europe. I think that’s a very long-term campaign to portray those two different forms of government assistance in a totally different light, and that leads to the discrediting of the very idea of relying upon government assistance.
Alston will present his report on June 21 to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in Geneva.
What does he hope to accomplish?
I don’t expect the Trump administration to stand up and say, “Gosh, we hadn’t realized this. We got it wrong.”
The United States is a proud nation. I don’t think that it will particularly appreciate being given such a poor report card before the international community. But I would very much like it if the U.S., when I present the report on June 21 to the Human Rights Council, would come out and try to defend its policies. I think that would be a very helpful step in getting serious debate going.