Extreme Poverty in the United States: Present and Future

For generations, the United States has been viewed from the outside as one of the world’s wealthier nations, a place where anyone willing to take advantage of available educational resources and employment opportunities could gain access—at a minimum—to basic necessities like shelter, nutrition, electricity and plumbing.

This attitude and these assumptions have been just as pervasive among those who live within the US. The belief that “real” poverty is absent from the fabric of American life has been persistent, even during a dramatic two-decade rise in income inequality. In the United States, many believe that the poorest of the poor are protected by a basic safety net that keeps them from disappearing through the cracks—a net that provides supplemental nutritional support, free K-12 education, access to subsidized medical care, and refuge for those who find themselves homeless.

But this is simply not the case. And now, attacks on an already fraying, sometimes non-existent web of resources for those at the lowest end of the income spectrum have presented a growing segment of the population with literally nowhere to turn when hardship strikes. With the arrival of the current administration, even the thinnest fibers of stability, nutrition, safety and shelter are being aggressively dismantled.

The United States: Human Rights, Extreme Poverty, and Unmet Obligations

Philip Alston is a UN Special Rapporteur who observes and reports on poverty conditions among UN member nations, and his role involves visiting specific states (in 2017, the US) and reporting to the Council on “the extent to which the government’s policies and programs relating to extreme poverty are consistent with its human rights obligations, and to offer constructive recommendations to the government and other stakeholders.”

Did the United States Pass the Test?

Here is the text of Alston’s Report. The report’s introductory summary is short and direct and its two-fold message is clear: First, poverty and its ancillary effects (poor health, shorter lifespans, higher infant mortality rates, and lower engagement in the democratic process) are more prevalent in the United States than most other countries in the developed world. Our performance is dismal. And second, the Trump administration’s dramatic change in policy direction serves to exacerbate these problems and generate a radical redistribution of wealth and stability from the poor to the extremely well-off.

New tax policies disproportionately benefit the wealthiest 1% percent of the population while continuing the steady decrease in income share for the bottom 90%. This, combined with an aggressive dismantling of the social safety net and an active campaign of deregulation that removes basic protections from the daily lives of the lower and middle class, bode very poorly for already stagnant wages, diminishing employment opportunities, and limited health care access for most of the country.

In order to create this report, Philip Alston visited with and collected data from members of congress and government officials at all levels. He also took an extensive journey through American cities and rural areas and gained first hand access to the lives, homes and stories of people at all class levels, including those who live day-to-day in extreme poverty.

Review this article from the Guardian for descriptive accounts and a few photos of those he met with during this process, and join us as we work to counter the impact of these inexplicably cruel and destructive policy decisions.