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,"
"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
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
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
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.
AMERICAN DREAM RAPIDLY BECOMING AMERICAN ILLUSION
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
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
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
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,"
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
"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
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
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
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
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.