America’s immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live. About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty. – United Nations General Assembly
To read so glaringly from an international source that the United States has the highest inequality of the richest nations, the highest incarceration rate and the lowest levels of voter registration, raises the question: Who are we, as a people, when we tolerate the conditions that keep so many so devastated? – Mary Leah Plante
In December of 2017, Phillip G. Alston, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, presented his statement regarding his recent visit to the United States. During his travels, Alston spoke to scores of elected officials, policy experts, nonprofit leaders, and those living in “deep” poverty, including many homeless Americans.
In his statement, he notes that the concept of “American exceptionalism” was frequently brought up in his discussions. However, when considering this theme, Alston writes that “…today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights. As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.”
Now, in contrast to America’s “founding commitment to human rights,” all of us will recognize that the United States and “its immense wealth” were built largely on the forced removal of Native peoples from their land, the free labor of African slaves, and myriad other human rights violations. So we understand that this nation’s record on human rights has logged more than a few failures.
That said, during our history, significant advancements have been made, and thus Alston’s point is well received. The progress America has made is swiftly being rolled back.
There are a number of things that Alston points to as factors in this dramatic shift, including the persistence of racism; increased child poverty; a rampant criminalization of the poor; systematic weakening of democratic principles; a continuing trend toward privatization; disproportionate effect of poverty on women; and a cluster of policy failings.
Shortly after Alston’s report, Nobel Laureate Sir Angus Deaton suggested in a New York Times editorial that more than five million Americans are currently living in extreme poverty. Research from Oxford University economic historian Robert Allen and Princeton University ethnographer Matthew Desmond further support this claim.
This, in essence, means that more millions of our fellow citizens are experiencing the same level of abject poverty that exists in the poorest nations on earth. Economists, scholars, government officials, activists, and others had long considered such levels of poverty to be endemic only to the “underdeveloped” world.
How did this happen? Alston’s list, referenced above, provides a number of answers to this question. Moreover, in May of this year, the UN General Assembly released its official report based on Alston’s time in the United States, including visits to California, Georgia, West Virginia, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. And, despite the America’s status as the wealthiest nation on earth, its position on a multitude of health and wellness indicators in relationship to its peer nations (the rest of the “developed” world) is pitiful.
For example, the United States has the highest rate of income inequality in the western world. Among “developed” nations, America also maintains the highest rate of child poverty as well as the lowest rate of social mobility.
Furthermore, our infant mortality rate is the highest among the 36 counties that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – nations with democratic governments and strong economies. The United States also continues to lag behind dozens of countries in education.
These rankings only represent a handful of America’s current shortcomings across the globe. The current administration’s motto is “Make America Great Again.” Yet, it appears that the policies of this administration will only serve to exacerbate the social, economic and health-related problems that were already spinning out of control.
In its evaluation of the current administration, the UN report on extreme poverty and human rights states that:
For almost five decades the overall policy response has been neglectful at best, but the policies pursued over the last year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment, and convert basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship.
For America to live up to its promise, it must invest in the lives and the wellbeing of all its citizens, as well as those seeking to become citizens. That includes childhood development, education, employment, health care, housing, transportation, and so on and so on – in other words, all of the critical areas where the government has steadily decreased its support.