Reality check: Examining U.S. poverty is not ‘insulting,’ experts say
Fresh off its withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council, the U.S. is condemning a months-old report commissioned by the council that suggests the Trump administration is widening the gap between rich and poor in the United States.
The report was commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council and written by Philip Alston, an Australian-born law professor at New York University and an independent human rights expert.
Alston’s report was published in April, but the U.S. didn’t condemn it until earlier this week, just before it was presented at the UN.
“It is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, wrote in a letter on Thursday. She added that the report was “politically motivated.”
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Alston fired back at Haley in remarks to the council on Friday.
“When one of the world’s wealthiest countries does very little about the fact that 40 million of its citizens live in poverty, it is entirely appropriate for the reasons to be scrutinized,” Alston said.
Here’s what Alston wrote to irk the Trump administration.
A widening divide between rich and poor
Alston’s report blames “successive administrations” for extreme poverty in the U.S., but takes particular issue with the Trump administration’s US$1.5 trillion worth of income tax cuts.
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Alston writes that U.S. President Donald Trump’s tax cuts last year “overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy and worsened inequality,” in a nation where income equality is already the worst among Western countries.
“The United States already leads the developed world in income and wealth inequality, and it is now moving full steam ahead to make itself even more unequal,” he wrote.
Alston also suggested that it is a “political choice” to allow extreme poverty in a nation as wealthy as the United States.
Alston’s report cites a wide range of data from official government agencies and international bodies, including poverty information culled from the U.S. Census Bureau’s statistics.
“About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty,” the report says, citing data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Vast numbers of middle-class Americans are perched on the edge,” Alston added on Friday, in his presentation to the UN Human Rights Council.
His report also points out that the U.S. has the highest youth poverty rate among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the highest infant mortality rates among comparable OECD nations. The numbers were pulled from the World Income Inequality Database.
Alston concluded that the U.S. is fuelling a global “race to the bottom” for government-run social programs.
He also offered a dire analysis of American democracy, which he said is being “steadily undermined” by wealthy individuals and groups with vested interests.
The academic view
Some might argue against Alston’s rhetoric, but his findings are based in solid, government-sourced facts, says Ann Huff Stevens, deputy director of the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research.
“I’ve always agreed that poverty is a political choice in the sense that the allocation of government dollars to different groups is inherently a political decision,” she told Global News.
She also took issue with Haley’s suggestion that it’s “insulting” for the UN to examine poverty in the U.S. over other, less-developed countries.
“I don’t find it insulting or problematic,” Stevens said.
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Stevens added that the U.S. presents a unique research opportunity in that it’s quite wealthy, yet it has a relatively weak social safety net.
“We are an outlier in many ways among rich nations,” she said.
However, she stopped short of directly blaming the Trump administration for the woes of impoverished Americans.
“There’s no evidence of that,” she said.
Stevens says Trump’s major tax cut appears designed to help the very rich, and will likely have little impact on American poverty rates.
“The truth is, for the people at the very bottom, that tax package did virtually nothing,” she said.
The way out
Alston offers few recommendations for addressing the issues he identified during his study of the U.S.
One recommendation, entitled “Get real about taxes,” insists that most Americans should recognize that “taxes are not only in their interest, but also perfectly reconcilable with a growth agenda.”
Alston also called on the United States to “decriminalize the poor.” He cited the American Civil Liberties Union’s findings that judges in 26 states had issued arrest warrants for alleged debtors at the request of private debt collectors, saying such moves were illegal and violated human rights standards.
He recommended strengthening the U.S. democratic process, exploring how “reasonable taxes” could be used to improve Americans’ social and economic circumstances, and providing universal health care in the United States of the kind available in all other developed countries.
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“This would rescue millions from misery, save money on emergency care, increase employment, and generate a healthier and more productive workforce,” Alston said.
— With files from the Associated Press
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