By J C Suresh
More than one in every eight Americans, numbering 40 million, equal to 12.7 % of the population, are living in poverty, and almost half of those – 18.5 million – in abysmal poverty, according to a new report.
Though the United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries, “neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation,” stresses Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in his statement on a two-week visit to the USA.
Alston, an international law scholar and human rights practitioner, is John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, and co-Chair of the law school’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.
His report published on December 15 by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights finds that the youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to less than 14% across the OECD of which the U.S. is a founding member.
There is considerable debate over the extent of poverty in the U.S., but for the purposes of the report, Alston has relied mainly upon the official government statistics, drawn up primarily by the U.S. Census Bureau. In order to define and quantify poverty in America, the Census Bureau uses ‘poverty thresholds’ or Official Poverty Measures (OPM). The figures mentioned in the report are from September 2017.
In the OECD member countries, the U.S. ranks 35th out of 37 in terms of poverty and inequality. The Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty characterizes the U.S. as “a clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league.” U.S. child poverty rates are the highest amongst the six richest countries – Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Norway.
The report highlights that a shockingly high number of children in the U.S. live in poverty. In 2016, 18% of children – some 13.3 million – were living in poverty, with children comprising 32.6% of all people in poverty. Child poverty rates are highest in the southern states, with Mississippi, New Mexico at 30% and Louisiana at 29%.
Contrary to the stereotypical assumptions, 31% of poor children are White, 24% are Black, 36% are Hispanic, and 1% are indigenous. When looking at toddlers and infants, 42% of all Black children are poor, 32% of Hispanics, and 37% of Native American infants and toddlers are poor. The figure for Whites is 14%.
Alston draws attention to the fact that poor children are also significantly affected by America’s affordable and adequate housing crisis. Around 21% of persons experiencing homelessness are children. “While most are reportedly experiencing sheltered homelessness, the lack of financial stability, high eviction rates, and high mobility rates negatively impact education, and physical and mental health.”
Examining the ‘racial’ aspect of poverty, the UN expert says: “The poor are overwhelmingly assumed to be people of color, whether African Americans or Hispanic ‘immigrants’.” But the reality is that there are 8 million more poor Whites than there are Blacks.
Some politicians and political appointees with whom Alston spoke were “completely sold on the narrative of such scammers sitting on comfortable sofas, watching colour TVs, while surfing on their smart phones, all paid for by welfare.”
But the poor people he met from among the 40 million living in poverty were “overwhelmingly” either persons who had been born into poverty, or those who had been thrust there by circumstances largely beyond their control such as physical or mental disabilities, divorce, family breakdown, illness, old age, unlivable wages, or discrimination in the job market.
The face of poverty in America is not only Black, or Hispanic, but also White, Asian, and many other colors, notes the UN expert. Nor is it confined to a particular age group. “Automation and robotization are already throwing many middle-aged workers out of jobs in which they once believed themselves to be secure.”
In the economy of the twenty-first century, only a tiny percentage of the population is immune from the possibility that they could fall into poverty as a result of bad breaks beyond their own control. “The American Dream is rapidly becoming the American Illusion as the US since the US now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries,” declares Alston.
He adds: Many statistics could be cited to demonstrate the extent to which women shoulder a particularly high burden as a result of living in poverty. They are, for example, more exposed to violence, more vulnerable to sexual harassment, discriminated against in the labour market.
Quoting Luke Shaefer from the University of Michigan, School of Social Work, and Kathryn Edin from the Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government, the UN expert says: The number of children in single-mother households living in extreme poverty for an entire year has ballooned from fewer than 100,000 in 1995 to 895,000 in 2011 and 704,000 in 2012.
“But perhaps the least recognized harm is that austerity policies that shrink the services provided by the state inevitably mean that the resulting burden is imposed instead upon the primary caregivers within families, who are overwhelmingly women. Male-dominated legislatures rarely pay any heed to this consequence of the welfare cutbacks they impose.”
The UN expert points to perturbing practice which affects the poor almost exclusively, that of setting large bail bonds for a defendant who seeks to go free pending trial.
“Some 11 million people are admitted to local jails annually, and on any given day there are more than 730,000 people being held, of whom almost two-thirds are awaiting trial, and thus presumed to be innocent.
“Yet judges have increasingly set large amounts of bail, which mean that wealthy defendants can secure their freedom, whole poor defendants are likely to stay in jail, with all of the consequences in terms of loss of their jobs, disruption of their childcare, inability to pay rent, and a dive into deeper destitution,” writes Alston.
But the saving grace is that a major movement to eliminate bail bonds is gathering steam, and needs to be embraced by anyone concerned about the utterly disproportionate impact of the justice system upon the poor.
The UN expert also mentions the widespread practice of suspending drivers’ licenses for a wide range of non-driving related offences, such as a failure to pay fines.
“This is a perfect way to ensure that the poor, living in communities which have steadfastly refused to invest in serious public transport systems, are unable to earn a living which might have helped to pay the outstanding debt,” notes Alston. Two paths are open to them: penury, or driving illegally, thus risking even more serious and counter-productive criminalization.
Demonization of the poor can take many forms, adds the UN expert. “It has been internalized by many poor people who proudly resist applying for benefits to which they are entitled and struggle valiantly to survive against the odds.”
Racial disparities, already great, are being entrenched and exacerbated in many contexts, he adds. In Alabama, he saw various houses in rural areas that were surrounded by cesspools of sewage that flowed out of broken or non-existent septic systems. 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,” notes the report.