As Congress prepares to vote on the controversial tax bill, the United Nations has issued a scathing report on poverty in the United States that found the Trump administration and Republicans are turning the US into the “world champion of extreme inequality.” Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, announced his findings after conducting a two-week fact-finding mission across the country, including visits to California, Alabama, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. Alston also warned that the Republican tax bill will transfer vast amounts of wealth to the richest earners while making life harder for the 41 million Americans living in poverty. Among other startling findings in Alston’s report, the US ranks 36th in the world in terms of access to water and sanitation. We speak with Philip Alston, who is also a professor at NYU Law School.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to a scathing new report on poverty in the United States that found the Trump administration and Republicans are turning the US into the, quote, “world champion of extreme inequality.” Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, announced his findings after conducting a two-week fact-finding mission across the country, including visits to California, Alabama, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. Alston also warned the Republican tax bill would transfer vast amounts of wealth to the richest earners while making life harder for the 41 million Americans living in poverty.
AMY GOODMAN: Among other startling findings in Alston’s report, the US ranks 36th in the world in terms of access to water and sanitation. Alston discussed the report’s findings Friday with independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who focused on economic inequality during his presidential campaign.
Well, for more, Philip Alston joins us here in our New York studio. He’s the United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. He is also a professor at NYU Law School, New York University.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Alston. So you just came back from this tour. Congress is poised to vote on this tax bill. Your assessment and why you’re weighing in as the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty?
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, my job is to try to highlight the extent to which people — to which the civil rights of people who are living in extreme poverty are jeopardized by government policies. What I see in the United States now is not just a tax reform bill, but a very clear indication by government officials with whom I met, by the Treasury, in their analysis, that this is going to be funded in part by cuts to welfare, to Medicare, Medicaid. And so what you’ve got is a huge effort to enrich the richest and to impoverish the poorest. That is going to have very dramatic consequences.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And from what you saw, how did race and poverty overlap on this issue?
PHILIP ALSTON: There’s a very complex relationship, actually, between race and poverty. First, it is true that if you are African-American, if you’re Hispanic, your situation, in terms of poverty, is often going to be pretty bad. But there’s also a racialized discourse, where if you speak to policymakers, they will say, “Yes, we’ve got to cut back on welfare, because those black families out there are really ripping off the system.” And so what they do is to try to get some sort of race warfare going almost, that white voters think, “Yeah, I’m not going to be ripped off by the blacks and the Hispanics.” But, of course, the terrible thing is that the cuts are actually nondiscriminatory. In other words, they impact the poor whites every bit as much as the poor people of color. So, the race dimension is deeply problematic.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Benita Garner, a mother living in poverty, who’s participating in a program through a nonprofit called LIFT. She landed seasonal work with UPS, but worries what will happen when the job ends.
BENITA GARNER: It’s scary. It’s stuff that you don’t really think about, but it’s scary. It’s just that I know it can happen. I’m like really not looking forward to the end of the month, because I’m like, ahh, you know, right now you’re getting money, but then it’s like it’s going to shut down again. So, you always have to constantly think every day, “What’s my next move?”
AMY GOODMAN: She spoke at your launch of your report. Talk about why Benita is so important.
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, because there are millions of people in exactly that position. One of the things that the current administration is pushing is that we need to get people off welfare and into work. First of all, it’s not clear that there are the jobs for people with those sort of skills. But secondly, those who do get the jobs that are available are going to end up in Benita’s situation. I spoke with a lot of Walmart employees who are working full-time, but who are still eligible for and totally dependent upon food stamps. So, working 35 hours a week at Walmart is not enough to make a living out of. And there’s a much bigger problem in the US, of course: The precariousness of employment, as we move to the gig economy and so on, means that there are going to be ever more people in Benita’s situation, where, yes, you get a job; yes, the benefits are cut; but you can’t survive.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: How does the US compare to other countries in the world? I think most Americans would be shocked. I mean, we mentioned in the lede to this piece, 36th in water quality in the world? Talk about comparing it to other major advanced — especially advanced industrial countries.
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, the United States is, of course, one of the very richest countries in the world. But all of the statistics put it almost at the bottom — doesn’t matter what it is. Whether it’s child mortality rates, whether it’s the longevity of adults, whether it’s the degree of adequacy of healthcare, the United States is very close to the bottom on all of these. What’s really surprising is that when I go to other countries, the big debate is that “We don’t have the money. We can’t afford to provide basic services to these people.” And yet, in the United States, they’ve got a trillion or a trillion and a half to give to the very rich, but they also don’t have any of the money to provide a basic lifestyle that is humane for 40 million Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Alston, you were in Alabama right around the time of the December 12th special election between Doug Jones and Roy Moore. And why were you talking about poverty at that time? Why did you see it as so significant, weighing in in this election?
PHILIP ALSTON: I didn’t weigh in in the election. I was very careful not to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: No, why poverty weighs in.
PHILIP ALSTON: Oh, right. Well, I think that — I mean, one of the best quotes I got during my two-week visit was from an official in West Virginia, where voting rates are extremely low. And I said, “Why is it that no one votes in West Virginia?” And the response was: “Well, you know, when people are very poor, they lose interest. They just don’t believe there’s any point.” And, of course, one begins to wonder if that’s actually a strategy, that you make people poor enough, you make them obsessed with working out where their next meal is going to come from, they’re not going to vote, and so you can happily ignore them.
AMY GOODMAN: You talked about a massive sewage crisis in rural Alabama and also talked about meeting people there, like Pattie Mae Ansley McDonald, who told you about how her house was shot up by white neighbors when she voted in 1965 after the Voting Rights Act became law.
PHILIP ALSTON: Right. That was a very touching meeting. I was meeting with people who really are struggling to make it. But the main focus was actually on water and sanitation. What’s shocking is that in a country like India today, there’s a huge government campaign to try to get sewerage to all people, make it available. In Alabama and West Virginia, where I went, I asked state officials, “So, what’s the coverage of the official sewerage system?” “I don’t know.” “Really? So, what plans” —
AMY GOODMAN: That’s what they said to you, they didn’t know.
PHILIP ALSTON: “So, what plans do you have then for extending the coverage, albeit slowly?” “Uh, none.” “So, do you think people can live a decent life if they don’t have access to sewerage, if the sewage is pouring out into the front garden, which is what I saw in a lot of these places?” “That’s their problem. If they need it, they can buy it for themselves.” In Alabama, where the soil —
AMY GOODMAN: The authorities said.
PHILIP ALSTON: Yeah. In Alabama, where the soil is very tough, it can cost up to $30,000 to put in your own septic system.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about Puerto Rico, which is grappling with a $74 billion debt and as much as $100 billion in storm damage. The Republican tax bill includes a 20 percent excise tax on goods produced there. This is Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, originally from Puerto Rico, talking about that.
REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: Now, with the potential passage of the Republican tax scam bill, Puerto Rico faces an economic hurricane. … Under this bill, American subsidiaries operating in Puerto Rico will now face a 20 percent tax when they move their goods off the island. If this becomes law, you can expect to see more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs disappear from the island. And the government of Puerto Rico could lose one-third of its revenue.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You visited Puerto Rico during your trip. The idea that even with an unemployment rate that hovers around 16, 17 percent, depression levels, that there could be even greater unemployment as a result of this tax bill?
PHILIP ALSTON: Puerto Rico is getting what it deserves. In other words, you don’t have any votes in the Congress, you don’t get anything. There is just no willingness on the part of members of Congress to be seen to be giving anything to Puerto Rico. The result is, you’ve got extremely high levels of people on welfare, but those welfare payments significantly lower than they are on the mainland. You’ve got a whole series of measures that are being proposed, in the tax bill and elsewhere. And you’ve got the PROMESA, the fiscal oversight board, poised to really impose a draconian austerity package. So, the situation is grim. But when you don’t have democratic representation, it’s very hard to defend yourself.
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times has a piece, “The Next Crisis for Puerto Rico: A Crush of Foreclosures.” And it says, “Now Puerto Rico is bracing for another blow: a housing meltdown that could far surpass the worst of the foreclosure crisis that devastated Phoenix, Las Vegas, Southern California and South Florida … If the current numbers hold, Puerto Rico is headed for a foreclosure epidemic that could rival what happened in Detroit, where abandoned homes became almost as plentiful as occupied ones.” Professor Alston?
PHILIP ALSTON: So, what you’ve got is, the very poor — and I visited a lot of areas where people have no electricity still and are living in rubble, essentially — they won’t be going anywhere. They’ll be staying in their homes. Those who are reasonably well-off will be fleeing, because they can’t make it in Puerto Rico. They don’t have the electricity. They don’t have the economic support. And so there’s no point in staying. That housing market will then be terribly uninteresting for investors and others.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the positive side of your report, those areas that you saw communities organizing themselves and trying to deal with their problems directly?
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, I did — and particularly in Puerto Rico, it has to be said, I visited some of the cooperatives where people are really trying to reclaim the land in San Juan, trying to dredge the old canal that’s grown over. I met with a lot of people living around power plants who are very severely impacted by the daily flow of coal ash and so on. They’re really organized. They’re really focused. And that was terrific.
I think, in many other parts of the country, as well, what I saw was, you know, community health collectives in West Virginia. I saw the homeless in Skid Row in Los Angeles and so on. There is a real element of organization. But the bottom line, unfortunately, is that if you don’t have essential government services being provided, these people can’t do it on their own.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for being with us. In 30 seconds, can you summarize — I mean, you’re not from this country. You’ve lived here for a long time. But you now take this different kind of tour, and you’re the special rapporteur on extreme poverty. Your thoughts on the United States after this two weeks?
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, the United States is unique. First of all, it doesn’t recognize what we call social rights at the international level — a right to healthcare, a right to housing, a right to food. The United States is unique in that, saying these are not rights.
Second, the issue with elimination of poverty always is around resources: “We don’t have the money.” The United States, again, uniquely, has the money. It could eliminate poverty overnight, if it wanted to. What we’re seeing now is the classic — it’s a political choice. Where do you want to put your money? Into the very rich or into creating a decent society, which will actually be economically more productive than just giving the money to those who already have a lot?
AMY GOODMAN: And what the tax bill does?
PHILIP ALSTON: That’s what the tax bill does, from what I’ve seen.
AMY GOODMAN: Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, a professor at New York University Law School, just completed a two-week tour examining extreme poverty and human rights in the US
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