A United Nations special rapporteur who recently wrapped up a two-week fact-finding mission in the United States issued a report last week stating “the American Dream is rapidly becoming the American Illusion” as the nation “now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries.”
“American exceptionalism was a constant theme in my conversations. But instead of realizing its founders’ admirable commitments, 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,” declared Philip Alston, an Australian who has served as the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights since 2014.
“There is no other developed country where so many voters are disenfranchised and where so few poor voters even care to go to the polls, and where ordinary voters ultimately have so little impact on political outcomes,” he added. “There are no other developed countries in which so many citizens are behind bars.”
Alston’s initial report from the trip will be finalized this spring and presented to the UN Human Rights Council in June. The UN official visited California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and thanked the Trump administration “for facilitating my visit and for its continuing cooperation with the UN Human Rights Council’s accountability mechanisms that apply to all states.”
He said his mission, for which he spoke with government officials, experts, nonprofits, and the homeless, was “to look at whether the persistence of extreme poverty in America undermines the enjoyment of human rights by its citizens.”
He charged that GOP tax reform pending in Congress “stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world, and will greatly increase the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest 1% and the poorest 50% of Americans.”
“The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty,” said the initial report.
According to Census Bureau measures, in September 12.7 percent of the U.S. population lived in poverty and nearly half of those, or 18.5 million people, were living in deep poverty.
“I have been struck by the extent to which caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between rich and poor have been sold to the electorate by some politicians and media, and have been allowed to define the debate. The rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic, and the drivers of economic success. The poor are wasters, losers, and scammers. As a result, money spent on welfare is money down the drain. To complete the picture we are also told that the poor who want to make it in America can easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough,” Alston wrote. “The reality that I have seen, however, is very different.”
“It is a fact that many of the wealthiest citizens do not pay taxes at the rates that others do, hoard much of their wealth off-shore, and often make their profits purely from speculation rather than contributing to the overall wealth of the American community,” he added. “Who then are the poor? Racist stereotypes are usually not far beneath the surface. The poor are overwhelmingly assumed to be people of color, whether African Americans or Hispanic ‘immigrants’. The reality is that there are 8 million more poor Whites than there are Blacks.”
The UN official predicted the poverty gap would grow even more as automation replaces low-skilled workers and those below the poverty threshold become “a more deprived and destitute class, one that’s disconnected from the economy and unable to meet basic needs.”
Alston slammed cities with stringent ordinances against the homeless for trying to cover up the problem with criminal offenses. “Rather than responding to homeless persons as affronts to the senses and to their neighborhoods, citizens and local authorities should see in their presence a tragic indictment of community and government policies,” he wrote. “Homelessness on this scale is far from inevitable and again reflects political choices to see law enforcement rather than low cost housing, medical treatment, psychological counseling, and job training as the solutions.”
The special rapporteur also noted how “political rights and poverty are inextricably linked in Puerto Rico.”
“If it were a state, Puerto Rico would be the poorest state in the Union. But Puerto Rico is not a state, it is a mere ‘territory.’ Puerto Ricans have no representative with full voting rights in Congress and, unless living stateside, cannot vote for the President of the United States,” he said. “In a country that likes to see itself as the oldest democracy in the world and a staunch defender of political rights on the international stage, more than 3 million people who live on the island have no power in their own capital.”