A UN Human Rights Official Examined Poverty in the United States. His Findings Sting

As one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the United States might seem a strange destination for an official visit from Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. But the findings from his visit to the United States, released on Friday, made clear that the situation in terms of poverty, inequality, and human rights in the United States presents cause for international concern–and that, in the view of the Special Rapporteur, the situation is likely to be exacerbated by current political developments.

Special Rapporteurs are independent experts empowered by the UN Human Rights Council to visit countries and issue official reports based on their findings. The reports are sometimes used by governments to help shape policy in ways that align more closely with human rights norms. (And sometimes, the reports are just ignored by policymakers).  Alston is an Australian human rights lawyer and professor at New York University.

As the Special Rapporteur explained in a press conference upon the release of his report, “In the statement that I’m releasing today, which is quite detailed, I make the point that the United States is clearly one of the richest countries in the world, that it clearly has levels of technological and other innovation that are the envy of all, that its people have a work ethic that is extraordinary. But coupled with all those achievements, are the statistics that are pretty well known — at least to the international community — that the U.S. infant mortality rate is the highest in the developed world; that Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives than in any other rich democracy; that inequality levels are higher than in most European countries; that neglected tropical diseases are making a comeback.”

While Mr. Alston’s travels took him to widely divergent contexts, one of the underlying themes he found throughout the US was the precariousness of life for those living in the poorest communities, in contrast to the wealth at the top. “The way in which those in the bottom 20 percent of the population exist is in dramatic contrast to the wealth that is in the country, and is being further exacerbated by current trends,” Mr. Alston noted in his press conference. Nor did he shy away from suggesting that political developments coinciding with his visit–such as the tax bill working its way through the U.S. Congress or rumored cuts to programs such as Medicare and Social Security–would exacerbate these conditions, arguing that “the social safety net that currently exists…is a very partial, poorly funded, and certainly far from comprehensive approach to ensuring social protection. But if the cuts that are anticipated are made, it will essentially be blown apart.”

Strikingly, Mr. Alston argued that the situation with regard to poverty was a violation of the United States’ international human rights commitments. While the United States has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights–a human rights treaty that commits states to, among other things, guarantee a basic standard of living–it has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the basic rights of political participation.

“My argument is that if we take human rights seriously–not just rights that American governments contest, unfortunately, such as the right to healthcare or the right to housing or the right to adequate food, but civil and political rights–those rights cannot be enjoyed effectively in situations where massive inequality exists,” Mr. Alston said in his press conference. “Poor people have no chance of having their voices heard, no chance of influencing public policy.” Mr. Alston went on to cite a range of policies and practices that impede political participation for the poorest in the United States–from the criminalization of poverty through policies that impose penalties for sleeping on the street, to laws that prevent people with criminal records from voting, to other forms of voter suppression.

The Special Rapporteur’s press conference and report capped off a fifteen-day tour that took him to a number of different communities across the US. After beginning his trip in Washington, Mr. Alston visited Los Angeles and San Francisco, California, where he investigated the causes and impacts of housing insecurity and the scarcity of affordable housing, as well as the steps civil society has taken to address this issue. He also visited West Virginia, where he met with leaders to discuss a wide variety of issues exacerbating poverty, including the lack of affordable healthcare and social welfare to problems with internet connectivity; and Alabama, where he found families living without proper sewage and sanitation and decried an outbreak of hookworm–a parasite that experts had thought was eradicated in the United States since the 1980s, and which thrives in environments of poor sanitation and sewage disposal, usually as a result of extreme poverty.

Nor was Mr. Alston’s visit confined to the continental United States, as he also spent time in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where he observed widespread devastation in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria–as well as poverty and political disenfranchisement predating the current crisis. “In a country that likes to see itself as the oldest democracy in the world and a staunch defender of political rights on the international stage,” Mr. Alston’s official report notes, “more than 3 million people who live on the island have no power in their own capital.”

Mr. Alston demurred when asked about specific recommendations coming from the report, arguing for an “integrated approach.” He also admitted that he could not fully hope to address every aspect of poverty in the United States in his report, noting that issues such as racism, gender, and immigration impact how poverty is experienced.

Yet the final press conference and the full report further underscore the level of international concern over the problem of poverty and inequality in the United States–and his visit underscored the importance of a political moment where those problems might become ever more grave.