By Ryan Velez
Philip Alston is the special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights for the United Nations, and after a 10-day tour of the U.S., he has some unique insights and observations about poverty in the country. The Guardian has some choice excerpts from his reports.
“In my travels through California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington DC, I have spoken with dozens of experts and civil society groups, met with senior state and federal government officials and talked with many people who are homeless or living in deep poverty,” Alston begins.
“My visit coincides with a dramatic change of direction in US policies relating to inequality and extreme poverty. The proposed tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world, and will greatly increase the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest 1% and the poorest 50% of Americans. The dramatic cuts in welfare, foreshadowed by Donald Trump and speaker Ryan, are already beginning to be implemented by the administration, will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes. It is against this background that my report is presented,” he adds.
The report is punctuated with heart-wrenching anecdotes. “ I met with many people barely surviving on Skid Row in Los Angeles, I witnessed a San Francisco police officer telling a group of homeless people to move on but having no answer when asked where they could move to, I heard how thousands of poor people get minor infraction notices which seem to be intentionally designed to quickly explode into unpayable debt, incarceration, and the replenishment of municipal coffers, I saw sewage-filled yards in states where governments don’t consider sanitation facilities to be their responsibility, I saw people who had lost all of their teeth because adult dental care is not covered by the vast majority of programs available to the very poor, I heard about soaring death rates and family and community destruction wrought by opioids, and I met with people in Puerto Rico living next to a mountain of completely unprotected coal ash which rains down upon them, bringing illness, disability and death.”
This doesn’t make up for it, but Alston notes some positives as well. “I met with state and especially municipal officials who are determined to improve social protection for the poorest 20% of their communities, I saw an energized civil society in many places, I visited a Catholic Church in San Francisco (St Boniface – the Gubbio Project) that opens its pews to the homeless every day between services.” Overall, though, his impression was very negative, that “today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights.”