Although the United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, the American Dream is quickly becoming the American Illusion, according to NYU Law Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
In his capacity as U.N. special rapporteur, the human rights researcher undertook a two-week fact-finding mission to California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., in December 2017 to investigate government efforts to eradicate poverty and how those efforts relate to US obligations under international human rights law. Alston found a dramatic contrast between the way that the bottom 20 percent of the population exists and the wealth of the United States.
"If we take human rights seriously, not just rights American governments contest-such the right to healthcare, to housing, or the right to adequate food-but civil and political rights, those rights cannot be enjoyed effectively in situations where there is massive inequality," said Alston at the end of the mission. "Poor people have no chance of having their voices heard. No chance of influencing public policy. And that's pretty much what we see happening in the U.S."
The U.S. has the lowest rate of social mobility among rich countries, and a child born into poverty has almost no chance of getting out of poverty in today's United States, statistically, according to Alston. The social safety net in the U.S. is partial and poorly funded, and will essentially be destroyed if the anticipated tax cuts are made, he said.
The legal scholar presented these and other observations in an official statement:
- There is a prevalence of caricatured, racist narratives about the poor, particularly the notion that welfare recipients are scammers. While funding for the IRS to audit wealthy taxpayers has been reduced, efforts to identify welfare fraud are being greatly intensified.
- The undermining of democracy, assisted by overt disenfranchisement of felons, gerrymandering, and the imposition of unnecessary voter ID requirements, results in the deprivation of the poor, minorities, and other disfavored groups of their voting rights.
- In many cities, homeless persons are effectively criminalized for the situation in which they find themselves, as regulations outlaw offences such as panhandling and public urination.
- In many cities and counties, the criminal justice system keeps the poor in poverty while generating revenue to fund not only the justice system but many other programs.
"In a rich country like the U.S.A., the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power," said Alston. "With political will, it could readily be eliminated."
Alston will present his final report on his U.S. visit to the U.N. Human Right Council in Geneva in June 2018.