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A Deep Vein of Poverty Runs Through the U.S.

A homeless camp in Sacramento, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

In the United States, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, 41 million people are living in poverty. Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wants to know why.

In a new feature published by The Guardian, Alston leads reporter Ed Pilkington through some of the most impoverished communities in the country: in Los Angeles, San Francisco, small towns in Alabama and West Virginia. The article and photo essay expose “the dark side of the American Dream.”

“Alston’s epic journey has taken him from coast to coast, deprivation to deprivation,” Pilkington writes. “Starting in LA and San Francisco, sweeping through the Deep South, traveling on to the colonial stain of Puerto Rico then back to the stricken coal country of West Virginia, he has explored the collateral damage of America’s reliance on private enterprise to the exclusion of public help.”

Pilkington notes that at the start of the fact-finding tour in Los Angeles, Republicans in Congress were voting for tax cuts that “will exacerbate wealth inequality that is already the most extreme in any industrialized nation.” He also notes that of the 41 million people living in poverty in the U.S., “nine million have zero cash income—they do not receive a cent in sustenance.”

Alton’s trip across the U.S. also highlighted how race factors into extreme poverty, as Pilkington writes during their trip to Lowndes County in Alabama:

The racial element of America’s poverty crisis is seen nowhere more clearly than in the Deep South, where the open wounds of slavery continue to bleed. The UN special rapporteur chose as his next stop the “Black Belt,” the term that originally referred to the rich dark soil that exists in a band across Alabama but over time came to describe its majority African American population.

The link between soil type and demographics was not coincidental. Cotton was found to thrive in this fertile land, and that in turn spawned a trade in slaves to pick the crop. Their descendants still live in the Black Belt, still mired in poverty among the worst in the union.

You can trace the history of America’s shame, from slave times to the present day, in a set of simple graphs. The first shows the cotton-friendly soil of the Black Belt, then the slave population, followed by modern black residence and today’s extreme poverty – they all occupy the exact same half-moon across Alabama.

The two also travel to Guayama, Puerto Rico, three months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. But, as Pilkington notes, “Puerto Rico’s plight long predates Maria.”

“The island has twice the proportion of people in poverty (44%) than the lowliest US state, including Alabama (19%). And that was before the hurricane, which some estimates suggest has pushed the poverty rate up to 60%,” he writes.

Ultimately, Pilkington concludes, Alton hopes to shed light on the extreme poverty spread throughout this wealthy nation, a problem unaddressed by Washington, D.C.

“Washington is very keen for me to point out the poverty and human rights failings in other countries. This time I’m in the US,” Alston says. “What I see is the failure of society. I see a society that let that happen, that is not doing what it should. And it’s very sad.”

Alston’s report became public on Friday. In it, he lambasts the Trump administration for exacerbating the homelessness crisis and argues that American democracy is crumbling as a result of widespread poverty and homelessness. He writes:

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 the President and Speaker Ryan, and already beginning to be implemented by the administration, will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes. …

Successive administrations, including the present 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 US has ratified (such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination), and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the US has long insisted other countries must respect.  But denial does not eliminate responsibility, nor does it negate obligations.  International human rights law recognizes a right to education, a right to healthcare, a right to social protection for those in need, and a right to an adequate standard of living.  In practice, 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 healthcare, or growing up in a context of total deprivation. …

I have been struck by the extent to which caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between rich and poor have been sold to the electorate by some politicians and media, and have been allowed to define the debate.  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.  To complete the picture we are also told that the poor who want to make it in America can easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough.

The reality that I have seen, however, is very different.  It is a fact that many of the wealthiest citizens do not pay taxes at the rates that others do, hoard much of their wealth off-shore, and often make their profits purely from speculation rather than contributing to the overall wealth of the American community.

“There is no magic recipe for eliminating extreme poverty, and each level of government must make its own good faith decisions,” Alston writes. “But at the end of the day, particularly in a rich country like the USA, the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power. With political will, it could readily be eliminated.”

Read The Guardian’s full piece and view the accompanying photo essay here.

–Posted by Emma Niles

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