UN Investigates Poverty in the US and Puerto Rico
Did you know?
Did you know that the United States is one of the world’s wealthiest countries and that it spends more on national defense than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined?
Did you know that US health care expenditures per capita are double the average amount of other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations, yet, the US has fewer doctors and hospital beds per person than average?
Did you know that US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world?
Did you know that US inequality levels are much higher than in most European countries?
Did you know that an estimated that 12 million Americans live with a neglected parasitic infection, and that tropical diseases, like Zika, are becoming more common?
Did you know that the US ranks 36th in the world for access to water and sanitation?
Did you know that the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world?
Did you know that the US now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries?
These shocking and saddening statistics are all true, and are featured in the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston’s statement on his visit to the US. He published his initial findings in a statement released on December 15 in Washington, DC at the end of his tour. His full report will be released in May before it is presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Why did a UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights visit the US?
The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights usually visits developing nations, war zones, and areas where poverty is expected to be rampant. They rarely conduct such visits in the first world. However, there are 41 million Americans who officially live in poverty, and in early December 2017, UN rapporteur Philip Alston, toured the US. The mission was motivated by news and statistics involving the growing wealth gap in the US and concern over how the current administration’s policies are affecting vulnerable groups. Alston said that he wanted to focus on how poverty affects the political and civil rights of Americans. Alston commented, “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.” Of the 41 million Americans living in poverty, 9 million have zero cash income and receive no sustenance money.
What did Alston find on his tour?
Alston’s report is a fairly damning analysis of poverty, entrenched racism, wealth inequality, and poor human rights standards. The statistics he reports are upsetting enough, but the stories he tells to highlight their importance are truly disheartening. His report tackles how the false narratives surrounding the American Dream, poverty, and welfare make Americans vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation, “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 an easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough.” Alston doesn’t beat around the bush and uses his statement to discuss homelessness, race, healthcare, problematic rhetoric around medicare and social programs for the poor, voter disenfranchisement including that of felons, the broken criminal justice system, the opioid crisis, and more.
The narratives that came out of the work are varied but moving. He describes his meetings with homeless people in California in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and how many of them felt that they could still make it, even though they were middle aged, still on the street, with no change in sight. Yet, the idea of the American Dream was so much a part of their psyche they couldn’t disassociate from it. Their loss of dignity is a subject that troubles Alston. In Skid Row in Los Angeles there are 9 toilets for 1,800 people, which are fewer toilets per person than is mandated by the UN for it’s refugee camps.
Alston painted a stark portrait of the racial divide in access to working sewers in Alabama. He visited black communities that had open sewers reminiscent of those in the developing world. The open sewers have contributed to a severe outbreak of hookworm, a parasitic disease thought to have been eradicated in the US long ago. In an interview with Democracy Now Alston shared that he had asked officials in Alabama and West Virginia about the coverage of official sewage systems and if there were plans to extend them. Officials responded that they didn’t know, and that, in cases where there are no official sewage system, people can buy them for themselves as needed. Problematically, in Alabama it can cost up to $30,000 to put in a private septic system, and the lack of coverage affects mainly the poor who are unable to afford the costs. “The State Health Department had no idea of how many households exist in these conditions, despite the grave health consequences. Nor did they have any plan to find out, or devise a plan to do something about it. But since the great majority of White folks live in the cities, which are well served by government built and maintained sewerage systems, and most of the rural folks in areas like Lowndes County, are Black, the problem doesn’t appear on the political or governmental radar screen.”
What about Puerto Rico?
Of the 41 million Americans who officially live in poverty a disproportionate number of those are Puerto Rican. Before the hurricanes, the islands had a 44% of its population living below the poverty line, which is more than twice that of Alabama (19%), the state with the most people living in poverty. Now, some estimates believe the number is closer to 60% due to the devastating consequences of the hurricanes. Alston has been very vocal about his belief that the tax bill will hurt Puerto Ricans unfairly. He points out the irony of a country which fought a war to sever ties with a monarchy that taxed them without representation keeping a territory without representation. Puerto Rico does not have a representative in Congress with full voting rights, and residents may not vote in presidential elections unless they move to one of the 50 states. The lack of political representation has led to a situation of poverty and exclusion throughout its history.
While in Puerto Rico, Alston visited Salinas and Guayama to witness the damage caused by the hurricanes. He also visited a neighborhood in San Juan known for its poverty, that of Caño Martin Peña. Specifically, he seemed very struck by the plight of the Puerto Ricans living near a coal-powered power plant. “I met with people in the South of Puerto Rico living next to a mountain of completely unprotected coal ash which rains down upon them bringing illness, disability and death.” Local doctors have reported that dust coming from a pile of residue made from combusted coal is responsible for a spate of local respiratory diseases and cancers. People living in the area complained about dying plants, and fishermen losing their catch due to mercury poisoning from the pollution. While Alston found studies proving that the pile contained dangerous levels of toxic materials, the company said the plant was the cleanest in America, and that it was designed not to leach toxins into the sea.
One of the most impressive things about the statement is Alston’s thoroughness in ensuring that he met with all different sides and parties involved before making his assessments. While in Puerto Rico, he met with the Executive Director of the Financial Oversight and Management Board. “This statement is not the place to challenge the economics of the Board’s proposed policies, but there is little indication that social protection concerns feature in any significant way in the Board’s analyses… 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.” What we can glean from this is that, while he is not currently challenging their economic policies, he does hint that he finds them unsatisfactory in his urgings for them to pay attention to human rights while making their decisions. We can also expect that his full report, to be released in May, that he could denounce the policies more directly.
In keeping with the damning tone of the report, Alston calls into questions Puerto Rico’s status, and essentially deems the islands to be a US colony and threatens UN future involvement on the issue. “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 are no longer a self-governing territory.”
What has been the Trump Administration’s reaction?
The Guardian wrote, “An especially unpredictable element of the fallout will be how Trump himself receives the final report, given the president’s habit of lashing out at anyone perceived to criticize him or his administration.” So far, there has been no direct response to Alston’s statement. Yet, the US government has made its feelings about the UN known. On Christmas Eve it was announced that the US Mission to the UN had negotiated a $285 million reduction to the UN budget for 2018. US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said that the “inefficiency and overspending” of the organization is well-known, and she would not let “the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of.”
The cuts are not thought to be a direct retaliation over the findings of Alston’s report, but it seems that it could be a part of the reasoning. The Trump administration has had a number of diplomatic scrapes with the UN, and the budget cuts seem to be a general retaliation for the mounting discontent. Though many believe them to be in direct retaliation to the criticism of 120 nations over Jerusalem. The US Mission threatened that they would cut funding to any nations that voted in favor of a draft resolution asking the US to reverse its decision on Jerusalem.
The US also cut $600 million from the peacekeeping budget after pressuring other nations earlier in the year. The Trump administration’s disparaging attitude towards the UN is not surprising, during his campaign he commented, “we get nothing out of the United Nations other than good real-estate prices”.