U.N. report details ‘extreme poverty’ in U.S., slams Trump policies
By Stephen Loiaconi
WASHINGTON (Circa) — At a time when President Donald Trump is touting the “best economy & jobs EVER” in U.S. history, a United Nations expert is offering a drastically different and more sobering assessment of economic conditions and the challenges faced by millions of Americans living in extreme poverty.
In a new report, Philip Alston, U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, places blame for worsening conditions and diminishing opportunities for the poor partly on the Trump administration’s policies. Pointing to the combined impact of cutting taxes for the wealthy and proposals to reduce social welfare programs, he has suggested Trump is trying 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,” Alston, who did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s what’s driving most of government policy on this issue.”
The unemployment rate is at its lowest level in decades, economic optimism is high, and vast wealth is being created in the U.S., but Alston contrasted the success and affluence of some with the abject poverty experienced by others.
“About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty,” he wrote. “It has the highest youth poverty rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the highest infant mortality rates among comparable OECD States. Its citizens live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies, eradicable tropical diseases are increasingly prevalent, and it has the world’s highest incarceration rate, one of the lowest levels of voter registrations in among OECD countries and the highest obesity levels in the developed world.”
Alston, who has previously evaluated places like China, Ghana, and Haiti for the U.N., compiled his report after a two-week tour of communities across the country in December. Stops included Los Angeles and San Francisco, Calif.; Lowndes and Montgomery Counties in Ala.; Atlanta, Ga.; Charleston, W.V.; Washington, D.C.; and three cities in Puerto Rico.
“Particularly in a rich country like the United States, the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power,” Alston wrote. “With political will, it could readily be eliminated.”
He will deliver a presentation on his findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 21.
Economists say Alston has identified some serious systemic and social problems, but there is less consensus on the causes and solutions for those problems.
“Just as a factual matter, that’s not true,” said Oren Cass, a senior fellow at conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, of Alston’s assertion that poverty is a political choice, “but it’s also a question of who is this an indictment of. Who has been in power?”
Though Alston is highly critical of the Trump administration’s policies, he acknowledges the most recent poverty data available is from 2016 and the squalid conditions in communities he visited pre-date Trump’s presidency. Cass questioned how observing poverty present at the end of Barack Obama’s eight years in office led to the conclusion Trump is making life harder for the poor.
“The report’s assumption seems to be all the problems are the result of insufficient social programs and spending…but of course what they’re observing is the result of 50 years of rapid expansion of social programs and spending,” Cass said.
According to Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of income and works support at the anti-poverty Center for Law and Social Policy, there is good reason to be concerned about the long-term impact of Trump’s policy proposals, but it is too soon to judge their actual effects.
“Inequality and poverty are very important problems in the U.S.,” she said. “I think this administration has a lot of proposals that would make them worse. I am not sure yet how much you can say this administration has made things worse over all.”
Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Urban Institute, emphasized that the poverty problem is bigger than one administration or one party, but she echoed Alston’s concern about the stigmatization of the poor.
“We need to realize a lot of people in this country who are poor are not able to work… We need to get away from this idea of a lazy and not-working poor…,” she said. “We need to realize that work alone does not raise people out of poverty.”
According to Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Alston’s data offers an incomplete picture because it does not account for the effects of anti-poverty programs instituted by the state and federal governments.
“I do think it is a problem that we focus too much on official statistics and not other indicators,” she said. “In fact, if you look at material standards of living, people are much better off today than they were three to four decades ago.”
She also questioned the rapporteur’s assumption that the intent of the Republican tax reform bill passed in December was to benefit the wealthy and perpetuate inequality.
“The purpose of the tax bill was precisely to help working families through encouraging greater investment and worker productivity in the U.S. and not meant as a giveaway to the rich,” she said, arguing tax cuts leading to increased corporate investment may boost workers’ wages in the long run.
U.N. criticism of U.S. government policy is not unusual. On Tuesday, a U.N. official also called upon the Trump administration to “immediately halt” its practice of separating undocumented children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Previously, U.N. officials have taken Trump to task for not “unequivocally and unconditionally” condemning racism and hate speech after the fatal white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last summer, and for his reported reference to impoverished African nations as “s***hole countries.”
Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. also took heat from the U.N. for racial tensions. A 2015 report by the Human Rights Council condemned police violence, shootings of unarmed black men, the continued use of the death penalty, and the failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
According to a 2014 report, the Obama administration failed to live up to its obligations to ensure racial equality under the 1965 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. An expert panel was particularly concerned about growing racial disparities in education and the justice system.
As with those reports, Waxman predicted many will brush off the U.N.’s assessment of economic conditions inside the U.S.
“Some people may be put off by two things,” she said. “One is some of the rhetoric is pretty direct and critical, and some people may be put off by the idea the U.N. has a role to play in these discussions in the U.S. That being said, it’s pretty fact-based.”
Indeed, Cass showed little regard for the report, in part because of where it came from.
“The first thing to be said about it is it’s a U.N. report and these things are kind of pretextual political documents used to criticize the U.S.,” he said. “They don’t have any kind of analytical basis…Having ‘United Nations’ written on it undermines any credibility it possibly could have had.”
Cass doubts the report will serve as anything more than political propaganda for those whose positions are already decided.
“It’ll have no effect on the debate over policy in the U.S. at all,” he said. “What it will do is that a few publications that make a living making people angry will write articles about it, reporting it as a credible assessment and thereby make some people angrier.”
A Trump administration official rejected Alston’s findings to the Associated Press.
“The Trump administration has made it a priority to create economic opportunities for all Americans,” the official at the U.S. mission to the U.N. in Geneva said, adding that the administration does value the work of U.N. experts like Alston raising important issues around the world.
Alston told the Los Angeles Times he has no illusions that Trump will suddenly reverse economic policies in response to his report.
“The United States is a proud nation,” he said. “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.”
The report lays out five broad recommendations for changes to U.S. policy:
- Decriminalize being poor
- Acknowledge the plight of the middle class
- Acknowledge the consequences of extreme inequality
- Recognize a right to health care
- “Get real about taxes”
“One of the things that frustrates policymakers and a lot of Americans is there is not an easy answer and there are not easy solutions,” Waxman said.
There are steps that can be taken to improve opportunities, according to Mathur, including offering better education for poor children, encouraging apprenticeship programs, and providing assistance to former inmates transitioning back to the labor market.
“We can also do more to improve economic opportunity through a federal paid family and medical leave policy that allows workers to take time off but return to work following brief periods away from work to meet caregiving needs,” she said.
While Lower-Basch agreed there is no “magic bullet,” she suggested policies like a higher minimum wage or paid family and sick leave would be more beneficial than imposing work requirements on welfare programs, as the Trump administration and Republicans have at times proposed.
“The classic line is, when you’re in a hole, the first thing you do is stop digging,” she said. “This administration really is trying to dig.”
From Cass’ perspective, though, stopping digging is exactly what Trump is trying to do. Social safety net spending has been rising for decades and tens of millions of Americans are still living in poverty.
“If your goal is actually to help them become productive citizens, build strong families, giving them more money or food stamps or housing vouchers has proven to be an ineffective way of doing that,” he said.
Though economists are not optimistic that the U.N. report will spark a serious, policy-based debate about alleviating extreme poverty in the U.S., they agree the country needs one.
“It does raise some issues that I think Americans don’t really think about in connection with poverty,” Waxman said, such as the effect of the justice system on poor families, who are often burdened with fines and bail they cannot afford.
The worst of the poverty Alston witnessed is occurring in neighborhoods and communities that often escape the public eye. His report may at least shed light on the struggles of families living with minimal incomes, limited transportation, deteriorating social protections, political disenfranchisement, and the worst sanitation systems he has ever seen in a developed country.
“It’s hard to know what creates public will,” Lower-Basch said. “Bobby Kennedy did a poverty tour in Appalachia and seeing it himself helped draw his attention to it. We’ve become accustomed to accepting it and we’re not as outraged as we should be.”
Cass faulted Alston for concluding that President Trump and his allies are deliberately aiming to crush the poor, rather than identifying a good faith disagreement about how to approach a complex issue.
“I think it’s an incredibly important issue,” Cass said, “but I think the starting point to have a constructive discussion about it has to be a recognition that both sides are trying to have a positive impact… If there were an easy way to solve poverty, that’s probably something someone would have gone ahead and done by now.”