‘American Dream is rapidly becoming American Illusion,’ warns UN rights expert on poverty
SAN JUAN – The United States is becoming a champion of inequality, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Prof. Philip Alston, recently said.
Entrenched poverty will be made far worse by policies being proposed by the Trump Administration, Alston, a human rights law expert at New York University, warned in a statement after a two-week fact-finding mission to California, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., as well as Puerto Rico.
“The American Dream is rapidly becoming the American Illusion, as the United States now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries,” said the independent human rights expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to look at poverty and human rights in countries around the world.
In his visit to Puerto Rico, he “saw extraordinary resilience and community solidarity,” but lamented that some in the south of the island were “living next to a mountain of completely unprotected coal ash, which rains down upon them bringing illness, disability and death.”
“American exceptionalism was a constant theme in my conversations. But instead of realizing its founders’ admirable commitments, 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.
“There is no other developed country where so many voters are disenfranchised and where so few poor voters even care to go to the polls, and where ordinary voters ultimately have so little impact on political outcomes. There are no other developed countries in which so many citizens are behind bars.”
The Special Rapporteur continued: “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.
“Despite the fact that this is contradicted by the facts, some of the politicians and political appointees with whom I spoke were completely sold on the narrative of such scammers sitting on comfortable sofas, watching colour TVs, while surfing on their smartphones, all paid for by welfare.
“I wonder how many of these politicians have ever visited poor areas, let alone spoken to those who dwell there,” he said.
The most recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, an Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights release says, indicated that more than 40 million people – more than one in eight Americans – were living in poverty. Almost half of those, 18.5 million, were living in deep poverty, with reported family income below half of the poverty threshold.
Alston said the poor were assumed to come from ethnic minority groups, but noted that in reality there were eight million more white people than African-Americans living in poverty. “The face of poverty in America is not only black or Hispanic, but also white, Asian and many other colours,” he said.
Alston expressed the fear that proposed changes in the direction of U.S. tax and welfare policies could have devastating consequences for the poorest 20 percent of Americans.
“The proposed tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world,” Alston said. “It will greatly increase the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest one percent and the poorest 50 percent of Americans.”
In the two days he spent in Puerto Rico, which is widely believed to be affected by the U.S. tax reform, he said he “witnessed the devastation of hurricane Irma and Maria in Salinas and Guayama in the south of the island, as well as in the poor Caño Martin Peña neighborhood…and in San Juan I listened to individuals in poverty and civil society organizations on how these natural disasters are just the latest in a series of bad news for Puerto Ricans, which include an economic crisis, a debt crisis, an austerity crisis and, arguably, a structural political crisis.”
Alston, who is Australian said, “Political rights and poverty are inextricably linked in Puerto Rico. If it were a state, Puerto Rico would be the poorest state in the Union. But Puerto Rico is not a state, it is a mere ‘territory.’ Puerto Ricans have no representative with full voting rights in Congress and, unless living stateside, cannot vote for the President of the United States.
“In a country [the United States] that likes to see itself as the oldest democracy in the world and a staunch defender of political rights on the international stage,” he added, scores of citizens in Puerto Rico continued without power service nearly three months after María.
“Puerto Rico not only has a fiscal deficit,” Alston stated, “it also has a political rights deficit, and the two are not easily disentangled.”
Having met with the executive director of the Financial Oversight and Management Board “that was imposed by Congress on Puerto Rico as part of PROMESA,” Natalie Jaresko, he added that his statement was not “the place to challenge the economics of the Board’s proposed polices, but there is little indication that social protection concerns feature in any significant way in the Board’s analyses.
“At a time when even the IMF [International Monetary Fund] is insisting that social protection should be explicitly factored into prescriptions for adjustment (i.e. austerity) it would seem essential that the Board take account of human rights and social protection concerns as it contemplates far-reaching decision on welfare reform, minimum wage and labor market regulation.”
“It is not for me to suggest any resolution to the hotly contested issue of Puerto Rico’s constitutional status. But what is clear is that many, probably most, Puerto Ricans believe deeply that they are presently colonized and that the US Congress is happy to leave them in the no-man’s land of no meaningful Congressional representation and no ability to really move to govern themselves. In light of recent Supreme Court jurisprudence and Congress’s adoption of PROMESA there would seem to be good reason for the UN Decolonization Committee to conclude that the island is no longer a self-governing territory,” he added.
Across the United States, Alston said, the “dramatic cuts in welfare, foreshadowed by President Trump 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.”
“Several administration officials told me that as far as welfare reform is concerned, states are, in Justice Louis D. Brandeis’ famous phrase, ‘laboratories of innovation’. Recent proposals to drug-test welfare recipients in Wisconsin and West Virginia, along with Mississippi’s recent purge of its welfare rolls, raise concerns that the administration would happily look the other way while states conducted what were in essence unethical experiments on the poor,” he warned.
Alston’s final report on his U.S. visit will be available in spring and will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in June.