NORTH AMERICA • The Politics of Poverty: The Harsh Reality of Inequality in the United States

When we think about poverty, we are often inclined to think of countries in the developing world. However, despite how rich a country is, poverty not only continues to persist in developed countries, but in many cases, the level of inequality is worsening and portions of the population seem to be getting left behind. The United States is unquestionably one of the richest countries in the history of the world, yet many would be shocked at the level of poverty affecting a vast number of Americans.

Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has previously examined human rights abuses and poverty in places such as Mauritania and China. However, in December 2017, he journeyed across the US for two weeks on a fact-finding mission. Alston witnessed first-hand the dire circumstances faced by millions of Americans living in poverty across the country and, while his official findings will be released later in 2018, his preliminary observations about the severity of poverty and inequality in the US have already begun making headlines. Though Alston’s work will not have any binding implications for the US, he hopes that shedding light on important issues related to food, shelter, and healthcare access will compel the US to consider how these issues reflect the nation’s values.

Reflecting on values that impact inequality and poverty in America is especially pertinent right now; in December 2017, President Donald Trump and the Republican government passed a widely controversial tax reform. Critics slammed the tax cuts as a ruthless transfer of wealth away from the lower and middle-classes to the wealthiest Americans. Alston, himself, expressed concerns that these reforms will “enrich the richest and…impoverish the poorest,” thereby bringing about “dramatic consequences”.

The Reality of Poverty in America

A staggering 41 million Americans officially live in poverty; 9 million of whom have absolutely no cash income. Thus, in contrast to the rhetoric that people living in poverty simply need a job to pull themselves out of poverty, Alston notes that many Americans living in poverty in fact have a job. However, sometimes even working full-time hours does not provide sufficient income to live off of. For many Americans, this lack of resources means they cannot afford basic necessities. And for those who must resort to homelessness, they not only struggle with accessing these basic necessities, they are also faced with a serious lack of access to sanitation. Los Angeles, for example, is home to 55,000 homeless people – an increase of more than 25% from last year – and the infamous “Skid Row” has only 9 toilets per 1,800 people at night – a ratio far below what the UN recommends in Syrian refugee camps.

Moreover, the US is battling a variety of health crises. For example, despite being one of the richest countries in the world, the US has seen their average life expectancy go down in the last two years, for the first time in over 50 years – believed to be due in part to the current opioid crisis. However, recent research has shown poverty rates and drug overdoses are positively correlated; as more people enter into poverty, the amount of drug overdoses is expected to increase. While President Trump declared the opioid crisis a ‘public health emergency’, no additional funds have been diverted to its cause.

Increasingly troubling is that illnesses commonly seen in developing countries are reappearing in the US. Hepatitis A recently swept through San Diego, causing at least 14 deaths – the deadliest outbreak in decades – with the majority of the victims being homeless who lack access to sanitation. Hookworm has made a comeback in Alabama – in areas predominantly populated by poor African Americans – on account of open sewage polluting family homes and land. On a variety of other health markers, the United States seems to rank at or near the bottom of all developed countries: infant mortality, maternal mortality and morbidity, longevity of adults, adequacy of healthcare, etc. Even more troubling is that the recent tax reform is expected to significantly decrease funding for welfare programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. This will unquestionably have devastating long-term impacts on the health of Americans, particularly for those living in poverty and only exacerbate the inequality between the rich and the poor in the US.

Poverty is Political: The Future of the US’s Fight on Poverty

Alston notes that eradicating poverty in the US could be easy; this certainly is not an example of a country not having adequate resources in order to address the issue. Instead, by choosing to institute tax reforms that will take more money away from the poorest, give back more to the richest, and slash funding for welfare programs, the US is a unique example of a developed country making a political choice to turn a blind eye to poverty in their country. When compared with other industrialized nations, the US certainly stands out for having very different values: access to food, healthcare, shelter, and sanitation are not deemed human rights as they are in many other countries. This is most clearly demonstrated in the budget of the US, which can be thought of as a “moral document, defining the nation’s values” when considering the recent tax reform. The question that remains is whether Alston’s report will have any significant impact on changing the political environment towards focusing more on poverty, or at the very least, demonstrating to the American public the realities of poverty faced in their own country.


Article written by Sarah THOMPSON 


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