Why the UN is investigating extreme poverty … in America, the world’s richest nation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 December, 2017, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 December, 2017, 8:12pm

The United Nations monitor on extreme poverty and human rights has embarked on a coast-to-coast tour of the US to hold the world’s richest nation to account for the hardships endured by America’s most vulnerable citizens.

The tour, which kicked off on Friday morning, will make stops in four states as well as the capital Washington and Puerto Rico. It will focus on social and economic barriers that render the American dream merely a pipe dream to millions.

The US Census Bureau puts the number of Americans living in poverty at 41 million – lower than other estimates – and the UN mission aims to demonstrate that no country, however wealthy, is immune from human suffering induced by growing inequality.

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, is a feisty Australian and New York University law professor who has a fearsome track record of holding power to account. Previously he has criticised the US for its programme of drone strikes, accusing Barack Obama’s administration and the CIA of killing many innocent civilians in attacks he said were of dubious international legality.

During Alston’s US tour, he will question whether it is possible, in one of the world’s leading democracies, to enjoy fundamental human rights such as political participation or voting rights if you are unable to meet basic living standards?

“Despite great wealth in the US, there also exists great poverty and inequality,” said Alston, who intends to focus on the effects of poverty on civil and political rights of Americans, “given the United States’ consistent emphasis on the importance it attaches to these rights in its foreign policy”.

Poverty experts are watching the UN tour closely in the hope that it might draw public attention to a largely neglected but critical aspect of US society.

David Grusky, director of the Centre on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford, said the visit had the potential to hold a mirror up to the country at a moment when globalisation and domestic policies have generated a vast gulf between rich and poor.

“The US has an extraordinary ability to naturalise and accept the extreme poverty that exists even in the context of such extreme wealth,” he said.

Grusky said the US reaction to Alston’s visit could go either way. “It has the potential to open our eyes to what an outlier the US has become compared with the rest of the world, or it could precipitate an adverse reaction towards an outsider who has no legitimacy telling us what to do about internal US affairs.”

Alston’s findings will be presented to the UN human rights council in Geneva next June. An especially unpredictable element of the fallout will be how President Donald Trump receives the report, given his habit of lashing out at anyone perceived to criticise him or his administration.

Trump has also shown open disdain towards the world body. During the 2016 presidential campaign he griped that “we get nothing out of the United Nations other than good real-estate prices”.

The UN poverty tour falls at a singularly tense moment for the US. In its 2016 state of the nation review, the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality placed the US rank bottom of the league table of 10 well-off countries in terms of the extent of its income and wealth inequality.

It also found that the US hit rock bottom in terms of the safety net it offers struggling families, and is one of the worst offenders in terms of the ability of low-income families to lift themselves out of poverty – a stark contrast to the much-vaunted myth of the American dream.

To some extent, Trump’s focus on “making America great again” – a political jingo that in itself contains an element of criticism of the state of the nation – chimes with the UN’s concern about extreme poverty. His call for greater prosperity for white working Americans in declining manufacturing areas that proved so vital to his election victory will be echoed in Alston’s visit to the depressed coal-producing state of West Virginia which backed Trump in 2016.

In other ways, though, the Trump administration in its first year has taken a radically hostile approach towards communities in need. He was widely criticised for his lacklustre response to the hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico that left thousands homeless and without power, and his tax reform would benefit one group above all others: the super rich.

The US poses a challenge for the UN special rapporteur because unlike all other industrialised nations, it fails to recognise fundamental social and economic rights such as the right to health care, a roof over your head or food. The federal government has consistently refused to sign up to the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights – arguing that these matters are best left to individual states.

Republican-controlled states provide relatively little help for the unemployed, while more help is likely in bigger coastal cities.

In contrast, raging house prices and gentrification is fuelling a homelessness crisis in liberal cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco – the first stop next week of the UN tour.