A group of top Democrats are demanding the Trump administration present a plan to Congress to address growing poverty in the United States, following an excoriating report by the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston. Alston slammed the Trump administration’s policies for worsening the state of poverty in the United States. The report details how 40 million Americans live in poverty, and 18.5 million Americans live in extreme poverty. It also details how the United States has the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries and one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility. We speak with Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty. He will be presenting his report next week in Geneva.
AMY GOODMAN: A group of top Democrats are demanding the Trump administration present a plan to Congress to address mounting levels of poverty in the United States, following an excoriating report by the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty. In the letter, sent to US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and other top lawmakers write, quote, “We believe the massive levels of deprivation outlined in the report—as well as the [immense] suffering this deprivation causes—are an affront to any notion of the unalienable rights to [life], liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” unquote.
This comes after United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty Philip Alston slammed the Trump administration’s policies for worsening the state of poverty in the United States. The report states, “[T]he policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship.”
Never miss another story
Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.
The report details how 40 million Americans live in poverty and 18.5 million Americans live in extreme poverty. It also details how the United States has the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries and one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility.
Joining us here in New York is Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty. He’ll be presenting his report next week in Geneva.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Lay out your findings.
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, I was looking at two different aspects, in a way. One is what you’ve described now—in other words, the economic statistics, the extent to which vast numbers of people are left living without enough to get by on, the 40 million living in poverty, the figure of 5.3 million, which has been estimated of people who live in, quote, “Third World conditions” in this country. And you’ve got a trend which is designed to—in terms of policies being adopted and put forward by the current administration, to—
AMY GOODMAN: You call them “aggressively regressive.”
PHILIP ALSTON: Yes. Basically, they are singling out all of the major benefit programs and seeking to attach very harsh work requirements to it. We’re all in favor of people having to work, but in the vast majority of cases, people are already working, and they can’t survive. But that’s not going to stop cutbacks in food stamps, cutbacks in housing subsidies and various other programs.
But the other thing that my report looks at, which is equally important, is the threat to democracy, of course, that if you consistently make life less manageable for those who are living in poverty, if you start to cut back on those who are able to vote, if you start making it more difficult—the latest Supreme Court decision, in relation to Ohio, making it feasible for the state to eliminate lots of voters—all of these affect, overwhelmingly, those who are not wealthy. And that presents—that means that the assault, in economic terms, represents a major threat to the democracy. So, my report focuses then on the implications of this for what we call civil and political rights in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Where did you go?
PHILIP ALSTON: I went to California. I went to Alabama, West Virginia, Puerto Rico and Atlanta, as well as Washington, D.C.
AMY GOODMAN: You point out that the life expectancy in the United States, in the most—what many consider the most industrialized country in the world, the life expectancy rates are falling.
PHILIP ALSTON: Yes. The World Health Organization brought out new statistics just a week or so ago, which showed—and this is a complex figure. It showed that the healthy life expectancy—in other words, the number of years that a newborn can expect to live in health—is now lower in the United States than it is in China. This is a pretty shocking development, because life expectancy is the classic overall indicator of the well-being of a society. It brings together a lot of different factors—why people live long, why they die early and so on. And so, what you’ve got in the United States, despite massive spending on healthcare, etc., is the worst level of healthcare in the Western world, the highest levels of child poverty and so on. And they all manifest themselves in the reducing life expectancy.
AMY GOODMAN: Philip Alston, the US is the only country in the world not to have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?
PHILIP ALSTON: Yes, the only one.
AMY GOODMAN: The only country in the world.
PHILIP ALSTON: It’s quite an achievement.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does that relate to extreme poverty in the United states?
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, children, of course, are an essential part of this. Of the 40 million Americans living in poverty, 13 million of those are children. We saw earlier this year in Congress a big battle over the Child Health Insurance Program, which gives—
AMY GOODMAN: That’s CHIP.
PHILIP ALSTON: CHIP, exactly—gives Medicaid and other assistance to children. If that had indeed been eliminated, it would have resulted in millions of children being made far worse off. So, the fact that the United States says, “We’re not going to acknowledge that children have rights. We’re not going to acknowledge the universally accepted list of human rights,” then makes it much easier not to single out children, not to try to guarantee minimum levels of well-being to those children. So, I think it is deeply problematic, and I think it would be very good if the United States were to look at itself and say, “Why is is that we are the only country in the entire world that doesn’t accept the notion that children have human rights?”
AMY GOODMAN: And how do migrant children being ripped from the arms of their parents fit into this story?
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, of course, that’s a violation of the parents’ rights, because there’s a right for a family to remain unified. That right has been upheld across the world in all sorts of courts and jurisdictions. But the other element, obviously, is that the child also has a whole set of rights that are being violated by this sort of conduct.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re going to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to present your report. You’ve sent it already to the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley. Has she responded? Has Trump responded? And what is going to be your main point in Geneva?
PHILIP ALSTON: Right. Well, the UN Human Rights Council looks at reports about a whole range of countries around the world in relation to different human rights. The United States itself weighs in very heavily in a lot of those debates. It will say that what’s happening in China is terrible, that what’s happening in Yemen is terrible. Whatever the country is that the US wants you criticize, it will be actively involved.
The presentation of my report means that there’s a whole range of other countries that will then get to reflect on the United States’ own record. And, of course, that puts the US in a difficult position. It wants to be able to speak out about human rights. It wants to be the champion of respecting humanity, dignity and so on. But if it then has to defend itself based on an analysis that shows the pretty dire situation of a large percentage of the American population, it’s not so easy.
So, the United States will have the opportunity to respond to my report. So far they’ve chosen not to say anything. Maybe that’s legitimate, and maybe they’re holding their fire, as it were, until next Thursday, when I present to the Human Rights Council. But I think it is extremely important—and the US itself would say this in relation to other countries—that there is a response, that there is a dialogue, in the UN context, around these issues.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you two other questions: one, about how Puerto Rico fits into this picture, and, two, about taxation.
PHILIP ALSTON: OK. Well, Puerto Rico would be the poorest state in the union, if it were a state. Puerto Rico doesn’t, of course, have any vote in Congress. And so, what we see is that it then enjoys all of the rights that someone who doesn’t have a vote has: none. So, consistently, the administration has adopted approaches to Puerto Rico which has made their struggle against extreme poverty almost impossible. You’ve currently got a situation where the PROMESA, the board that’s been appointed to oversee the bankruptcy, is empowered to take all sorts of decisions, has no particular consciousness of what we call social protection issues. And so Puerto Rico is uniquely badly off in the overall US context.
AMY GOODMAN: And taxation, how that fits into this issue of extreme poverty?
PHILIP ALSTON: What’s interesting in the overall debate is that in the good old days—FDR, LBJ and many since—there were lots of public discussions about what the United States should do about people living in poverty, what’s the policy going to be in terms of the Great Society and so on. Today, there’s almost no debate, certainly within this administration, about those issues. And instead, all the focus moves over to tax policy.
Now, tax policy is arcane. It’s very hard to understand, even for those of us who study it very carefully. But tax policy is being used as a way to shift massive resources to the wealthy, to the best-off corporations, and away from the people who really need it. And, of course, the tax cuts are being paid for, in part, by some of the savings that the administration has consistently predicted will come from less people on food stamps, less people getting housing subsidies and so on.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, 30 seconds, on the power of the movements. We’re about to speak with Reverend Barber, who was just arrested once again. There have been over 2,000 arrests around the country just in the last few weeks, and part of Poor People’s Campaign, a moral revival. The effects of movements, like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Poor People’s Campaign?
PHILIP ALSTON: It’s the only way forward, when governments are not interested in the plight of many millions of people. And we’re not—unfortunately, I keep talking about extreme poverty, but 40 million people is not extreme poverty. Forty million people are people who are very average working-class people not able to live decent lives. The only way that’s going to change is through a mass movement.
AMY GOODMAN: Philip Alston, we want to thank you for being with us, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. He’s been researching extreme poverty and human rights in the US and will be reporting his findings next week to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Thursday.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the Reverend Barber himself, just recently arrested once again, he’ll join us to talk about this last week of the beginning of the launch of the poor people’s movement, leading to a major march in Washington on June 23rd. Stay with us.