TWN Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Jun18/07)
14 June 2018
Third World Network

Rights: US response to poverty is to imprison the poor, says UN expert
Published in SUNS #8696 dated 7 June 2018

Geneva, 6 Jun (Kanaga Raja) - The United States' response to poverty in the twenty-first century is to punish and imprison the poor, a United Nations human rights expert has said.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Mr Philip Alston (from Australia), said that it is difficult to imagine a more self-defeating strategy.

"In the United States, it is poverty that needs to be arrested, not the poor simply for being poor," he added.

This assessment by the rights expert came in a full report to be presented to the Human Rights Council, which will be holding its thirty-eighth regular session here from 18 June to 6 July.

The report is based on a fact-finding visit that the Special Rapporteur undertook to California, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia and Washington DC from 1-15 December 2017.

"For one of the world's wealthiest countries to have 40 million people living in poverty and over five million living in "Third World" conditions is cruel and inhuman," said Mr Alston, in a UN news release.

"The Trump Administration has brought in massive tax breaks for corporation s and the very wealthy, while orchestrating a systematic assault on the welfare system. The strategy seems to be tailor-made to maximize inequality and to plunge millions of working Americans, and those unable to work, into penury."

"Locking up the poor precisely because they are poor, greatly exaggerating the amount of fraud in the system, shaming those who need assistance, and devising ever more obstacles to prevent people from getting needed benefits, is not a strategy to reduce or eliminate poverty," said the Special Rapporteur.

"It seems driven primarily by contempt, and sometimes even by hatred for the poor, along with a "winner takes all" mentality," he added.

"Contempt for the poor has intensified under the Trump Administration," said Mr Alston.

According to the Special Rapporteur, punishing and imprisoning the poor is the distinctively American response to poverty in the twenty-first century.

Workers who cannot pay their debts, those who cannot afford private probation services, minorities targeted for traffic infractions, the homeless, the mentally ill, fathers who cannot pay child support and many others are all locked up.

"Mass incarceration is used to make social problems temporarily invisible and to create the mirage of something having been done."

"It is difficult to imagine a more self-defeating strategy," said Mr Alston, noting that federal, state, county and city governments incur vast costs in running jails and prisons.

Sometimes these costs are "recovered" from the prisoners, thus fuelling the latter's cycle of poverty and desperation.

The criminal records attached to the poor through imprisonment make it even harder for them to find jobs, housing, stability and self-sufficiency. Families are destroyed, children are left parentless and the burden on governments mounts.

"A cheaper and more humane option is to provide proper social protection and facilitate the return to the workforce of those who are able. In the United States, it is poverty that needs to be arrested, not the poor simply for being poor," said the rights expert.

He noted that only 36 per cent of Republican voters consider that the federal Government should do more to help poor people, and 33 per cent believe that it already does too much.

"The paradox is that the proposed slashing of social protection benefits will affect the middle classes every bit as much as the poor."

According to the report, almost a quarter of full-time workers, and three quarters of part-time workers, receive no paid sick leave.

Absence from work due to illness thus poses a risk of economic disaster. About 44 per cent of adults either could not cover an emergency expense costing $400 or would need to sell something or borrow money to do it.

The impacts of automation, artificial intelligence and the increasing fluidity of work arrangements mean that employer-provided social protection will likely disappear for the middle classes in the years ahead.

"If this coincides with dramatic cutbacks in government benefits, the middle classes will suffer an ever more precarious economic existence, with major negative implications for the economy as a whole, for levels of popular discontent and for political stability."

According to the Special Rapporteur, 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. But this is a race that no one else would want to win, since almost all other nations, and all the major international institutions, such as OECD, the World Bank and IMF, have recognized that extreme inequalities are economically inefficient and socially damaging.

The trajectory of the United States since 1980 is shocking. In both Europe and the United States, the richest 1 per cent earned around 10 per cent of national income in 1980. By 2017 that had risen slightly in Europe to 12 per cent, but massively in the United States, to 20 per cent.

Since 1980 annual income earnings for the top 1 per cent in the United States have risen 205 per cent, while for the top 0.001 per cent the figure is 636 per cent. By comparison, the average annual wage of the bottom 50 per cent has stagnated since 1980.

"What extreme inequality actually signifies is the transfer of economic and political power to a handful of elites who inevitably use it to further their own self-interest, as demonstrated by the situation in various countries around the world," said Mr Alston.

Extreme inequality often leads to the capture of the powers of the State by a small group of economic elites.

The combined wealth of the United States Cabinet is around $4.3 billion. As noted by Forbes: "America's first billionaire president has remained devoted to the goal of placing his wealthy friends in his Cabinet, a top campaign promise. And many regulatory agencies are now staffed by "political appointees with deep industry ties and potential conflicts".

"Extreme inequality thus poses a threat not just to economic efficiency but to the well-being of American democracy," the rights expert warned.


According to the report by the Special Rapporteur, the United States is a land of stark contrasts. It is one of the world's wealthiest societies, a global leader in many areas, and a land of unsurpassed technological and other forms of innovation.

Its corporations are global trendsetters, its civil society is vibrant and sophisticated and its higher education system leads the world.

But its immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live. About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty.

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 among OECD countries and the highest obesity levels in the developed world.

The United States has the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries. The $1.5 trillion in tax cuts in December 2017 overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy and worsened inequality.

The consequences of neglecting poverty and promoting inequality are clear, said Mr Alston.

The United States has one of the highest poverty and inequality levels among the OECD countries, and the Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty ranks it 18th out of 21 wealthy countries in terms of labour markets, poverty rates, safety nets, wealth inequality and economic mobility.

But in 2018 the United States had over 25 per cent of the world's 2,208 billionaires. There is thus a dramatic contrast between the immense wealth of the few and the squalor and deprivation in which vast numbers of Americans exist.

"For almost five decades the overall policy response has been neglectful at best, but the policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship."

The Special Rapporteur said his visit coincided with the dramatic change of direction in relevant United States policies.

The new policies: (a) provide unprecedentedly high tax breaks and financial windfalls to the very wealthy and the largest corporations; (b) pay for the se partly by reducing welfare benefits for the poor; (c) undertake a radical programme of financial, environmental, health and safety deregulation that eliminates protections mainly benefiting the middle classes and the poor; (d) seek to add over 20 million poor and middle class persons to the ranks of those without health insurance; (e) restrict eligibility for many welfare benefits while increasing the obstacles required to be overcome by those eligible; (f) dramatically increase spending on defence, while rejecting requested improvements in key veterans ' benefits; (g) do not provide adequate additional funding to address an opioid crisis that is decimating parts of the country; and (h) make no effort to tackle the structural racism that keeps a large percentage of non-Whites in poverty and near poverty.

According to the report, the share of the top 1 per cent of the population in the United States has grown steadily in recent years. In 2016 they owned 38.6 per cent of total wealth. In relation to both wealth and income the share of the bot tom 90 per cent has fallen in most of the past 25 years.

"The tax reform will worsen this situation and ensure that the United States remains the most unequal society in the developed world. The planned dramatic cuts in welfare will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes. Since economic and political power reinforce one another, the political system will be even more vulnerable to capture by wealthy elites."

The Special Rapporteur said the tax cuts will fuel a global race to the bot tom, thus further reducing the revenues needed by Governments to ensure basic social protection and meet their human rights obligations. And the United States remains a model whose policies other countries seek to emulate.

He noted that the United States now has one of the lowest rates of inter-generational social mobility of any of the rich countries.

Zip codes, which are usually reliable proxies for race and wealth, are tragically reliable predictors of a child's future employment and income prospects. High child and youth poverty rates perpetuate the inter-generational transmission of poverty very effectively, and ensure that the American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion.

The equality of opportunity, which is so prized in theory, is in practice a myth, especially for minorities and women, but also for many middle-class White workers.

Successive administrations, including the current one, have determinedly rejected the idea that economic and social rights are full-fledged human rights, despite their clear recognition not only in key treaties that the United States has ratified, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, but also in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United States has long insisted other countries must respect.

In practice, said Mr Alston, the United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that, while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable health care or growing up in a context of total deprivation.

He noted that in thinking about poverty, it is striking how much weight is given to caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between rich and poor that are consistently peddled by some politicians and media.

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.

He however pointed out that many of the wealthiest citizens do not pay taxes at the rates that others do, hoard much of their wealth offshore and often make their profits purely from speculation rather than contributing to the overall wealth of the American community.

In imagining the poor, racist stereotypes are usually not far beneath the surface. The poor are overwhelmingly assumed to be people of colour, whether African Americans or Hispanic "immigrants". The reality is that there are 8 million more poor Whites than there are poor Blacks. The face of poverty in America is not only Black or Hispanic, but also White, Asian and many other backgrounds.

Similarly, large numbers of welfare recipients are assumed to be living high on "the dole". Some politicians and political appointees with whom the Special Rapporteur spoke were completely sold on the narrative of such scammers sitting on comfortable sofas, watching cable television or spending their days on their smartphones, all paid for by welfare.

The Special Rapporteur wondered how many of those politicians have ever visited poor areas, let alone spoken to those who dwell there. There are anecdotes aplenty, but little evidence.

The report said that according to the official poverty measures, in 2016, 1 2.7 per cent of Americans were living in poverty; according to the supplemental poverty measure, the figure was 14 per cent.

"There is no magic recipe for eliminating extreme poverty, and each level of government must make its own good-faith decisions. At the end of the day, however, particularly in a rich country like the United States, the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power. With political will, it could readily be eliminated," it added.

What is known, from long experience and in the light of the Government's human rights obligations, is that there are indispensable ingredients for a set of policies designed to eliminate poverty.

They include: democratic decision-making, full employment policies, social protection for the vulnerable, a fair and effective justice system, gender and racial equality, respect for human dignity, responsible fiscal policies and environmental justice.

According to Mr Alston, the United States falls well short on each of these measures.

The Special Rapporteur said that the cornerstone of American society is democracy, but it is being steadily undermined, and with it the human right to political participation protected in article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The principle of one person, one vote applies in theory, but is increasingly far from the reality.

In the United States there is overt disenfranchisement of more than 6 million felons and ex-felons, which predominantly affects Black citizens since they are the ones whose conduct is often specifically targeted for criminalisation.

In addition, nine states currently condition the restoration of the right to vote after prison on the payment of outstanding fines and fees. A typical outcome is that seen in Alabama, where a majority of all ex-felons cannot vote.

Then there is covert disenfranchisement, which includes the dramatic gerrymandering of electoral districts to privilege particular groups of voters, the imposition of artificial and unnecessary voter identification requirements, the blatant manipulation of polling station locations, the relocation of Departments of Motor Vehicles' offices to make it more difficult for certain groups to obtain identification, and the general ramping up of obstacles to voting, especially for those without resources.

"The net result is that people living in poverty, minorities and other disfavoured groups are being systematically deprived of their right to vote."

It is thus unsurprising that the United States has one of the lowest turnout rates in elections among developed countries, with only 55.7 per cent of the voting- age population casting ballots in the 2016 presidential election.

Registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the United States than in just about any other OECD country. Only about 64 per cent of the United States voting-age population was registered in 2016, compared with 91 per cent in Canada and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 96 per cent in Sweden and nearly 99 per cent in Japan.

Proposals to slash the meagre welfare arrangements that currently exist are now sought to be justified primarily on the basis that the poor need to leave welfare and go to work.

The report noted that up to $6 billion annually goes from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other public assistance programmes to support workers in firms like Walmart, providing a huge indirect subsidy to the relevant corporations.

Walmart lobbied heavily for tax reform, from which it will save billions, and then announced it would spend an additional $700 million in increasing employee wages and benefits for its workers. But the resulting rise in the debt of the United States, due in part to the tax reform, has then been used to justify a proposed 30 per cent cut in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding over a decade.

The Special Rapporteur also pointed out that the shockingly high number of children living in poverty in the United States demands urgent attention. In 2016, 18 per cent of children (13.3 million) were living in poverty, and children comprised 32.6 per cent of all people in poverty.

About 20 per cent of children live in relative income poverty, compared to the OECD average of 13 per cent. Contrary to stereotypical assumptions, 31 per cent of poor children are White, 24 per cent are Black, 36 per cent are Hispanic and 1 per cent are indigenous. This is consistent with the fact that the United States ranks 25th out of 29 industrialized nations in investing in early childhood education.

Furthermore, the infant mortality rate, at 5.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, is almost 50 per cent higher than the OECD average of 3.9.

According to the Special Rapporteur, the official point-in-time estimates of homelessness in 2017 show a nation-wide figure of 553,742, including 76,501 in New York, 55,188 in Los Angeles and 6,858 in San Francisco.

The criminalisation of homeless individuals in cities that provide almost zero public toilets seems particularly callous, said Mr Alston.

In June 2017, it was reported that the approximately 1,800 homeless individuals on Skid Row in Los Angeles had access to only nine public toilets.

Los Angeles failed to meet even the minimum standards the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees sets for refugee camps in the Syrian Arab Republic and other emergency situations.

In many cities and counties, the criminal justice system is effectively a system for keeping the poor in poverty while generating revenue to fund not only the justice system but many other programmes.

So-called fines and fees are piled up so that low level infractions become immensely burdensome, a process that affects only the poorest members of society, who pay the vast majority of such penalties. Driving licences are also commonly suspended for a wide range of non-driving related offences, such as a failure to pay fines.

"This is a perfect way to ensure that the poor, living in communities that have steadfastly refused to invest in serious public transport systems, are unable to earn a living that might have helped to pay the outstanding debt," said the rights expert.

Another practice that affects the poor almost exclusively is that of setting large bail bonds for a defendant who seeks to go free pending trial. Some 11 million people are admitted to local jails annually, and on any given day more than 730,000 people are being held, of whom almost two thirds are awaiting trial, and thus presumed to be innocent.

Yet judges have increasingly set large bail amounts, which means that wealthy defendants can secure their freedom while poor defendants are likely to stay in jail, with severe consequences such as loss of jobs, disruption of childcare, inability to pay rent and deeper destitution.

The Special Rapporteur also found that the United States remains a chronically segregated society. Blacks are 2.5 times more likely than Whites to be living in poverty, their infant mortality rate is 2.3 times that of Whites, their unemployment rate is more than double that for Whites, they typically earn only 82.5 cents for every dollar earned by a White counterpart, their household earnings are on average well under two thirds of those of their White equivalents, and their incarceration rates are 6.4 times higher than those of Whites.

"These shameful statistics can only be explained by long-standing structural discrimination on the basis of race, reflecting the enduring legacy of slavery," he said.

"Ironically, politicians and mainstream media portrayals distort this situation in order to suggest that poverty in America is overwhelmingly Black, thereby triggering a range of racist responses and encouraging Whites to see poverty as a question of race."

Too often the loaded and inaccurate message that parts of the media want to convey is "lazy Blacks sponge off hard-working Whites".

The report also noted that indigenous peoples, as a group, suffer disproportionately from multi-dimensional poverty and social exclusion. The 2016 poverty rate among American Indian and Alaska Native peoples was 26.2 per cent, the highest among all ethnic groups.

Indigenous peoples also have the highest unemployment rate of any ethnic group: 12 per cent in 2016, compared to the national average of 5.8 per cent. One in four indigenous young people aged 16 to 24 are neither enrolled in school nor working, it said.