Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Dec17/08)
21 December 2017
Third World Network
United Nations: "American Dream" rapidly becoming "American
Published in SUNS #8600 dated 20 December 2017
Geneva, 19 Dec (Kanaga Raja) - "The American Dream is rapidly
becoming the American Illusion as the US now has the lowest rate of
social mobility of any of the rich countries," said Professor
Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human
rights, at the end of a two-week fact-finding mission to California,
Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia, and Washington DC, as well as Puerto
Highlighting the dramatic change of direction of policies in the United
States relating to inequality and extreme poverty, the UN rights expert
from Australia has cautioned that the proposed tax reform package
is essentially a bid to make the US "the world champion of extreme
And the dramatic cuts in welfare (in the package) will essentially
shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes,
In his end-of-mission statement released on 15 December, the rights
expert noted that his visit coincides with a dramatic change of direction
in US policies relating to inequality and extreme poverty.
"The proposed tax reform package stakes out America's bid to
become the most unequal society in the world, and will greatly increase
the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the
richest 1% and the poorest 50% of Americans," he said.
"The dramatic cuts in welfare, foreshadowed by the President
and Speaker Ryan, and already beginning to be implemented by the administration,
will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is
already full of holes," he added.
The United States is one of the world's richest, most powerful and
technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its
power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation
in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.
"American exceptionalism was a constant theme in my conversations.
But instead of realizing its founders' admirable commitments, today's
United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic
ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding
commitment to human rights. A s a result, contrasts between private
wealth and public squalor abound," said Prof Alston.
The rights expert highlighted a cross-section of statistical comparisons
that he said provides a relatively clear picture of the contrast between
the wealth, innovative capacity, and work ethic of the US, and the
social and other outcomes that have been attained:
* By most indicators, the US is one of the world's wealthiest countries.
It spends more on national defense than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia,
the United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined.
* US health care expenditures per capita are double the OECD average
and much higher than in all other countries. But there are many fewer
doctors and hospital beds per person than the OECD average.
* US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed
* Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared
to people living in any other rich democracy, and the "health
gap" between the US and its peer countries continues to grow.
* US inequality levels are far higher than those in most European
* Neglected tropical diseases, including Zika, are increasingly common
in the US. It has been estimated that 12 million Americans live with
a neglected parasitic infection. A 2017 report documents the prevalence
of hookworm in Lowndes County, Alabama.
* The US has the highest prevalence of obesity in the developed world.
* In terms of access to water and sanitation, the US ranks 36th in
* America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of
Turkmenistan, El Salvador, Cuba, Thailand and the Russian Federation.
Its rate is nearly five times the OECD average.
* The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across
the OEC D with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to
less than 14% across the OECD.
* The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality characterizes the
US as "a clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league."
US child poverty rates are the highest amongst the six richest countries
- Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Norway.
* About 55.7% of the US voting-age population cast ballots in the
2016 presidential election. In the OECD, the US placed 28th in voter
turnout, compared with an OECD average of 75%.
Registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters
in the US than just about any other OECD country. Only about 64% of
the US voting-age population (and 70% of voting-age citizens) was
registered in 2016, compare d with 91% in Canada (2015) and the UK
(2016), 96% in Sweden (2014), and nearly 99% in Japan (2014).
Prof Alston said successive administrations, including the present
one, have determinedly rejected the idea that economic and social
rights are full-fledged human rights, despite their clear recognition
not only in key treaties that the US has ratified (such as the Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Rac ial Discrimination), and in
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the US has long insisted
other countries must respect.
In practice, Prof Alston said, the United States is alone among developed
countries in insisting that while human rights are of fundamental
importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of
hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable healthcare, or growing
up in a context of total deprivation.
EXTENT OF POVERTY
"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 t he debate," the rights expert pointed
The rich (according to this narrative) 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.
"The reality that I have seen, however, is very different,"
It is a fact that many of the wealthiest citizens do not pay taxes
at the rates that others do, hoard much of their wealth off-shore,
and often make their profits purely from speculation rather than contributing
to the overall wealth of t he American community.
Who then are the poor?
According to the rights expert, the poor are overwhelmingly assumed
to be people of colour, whether African Americans or Hispanic "immigrants".
The reality is that there are 8 million more poor Whites than there
are Blacks. Similarly, large numbers of welfare recipients are assumed
to be living high on the hog.
"Some politicians and political appointees with whom I spoke
were completely sold on the narrative of such scammers sitting on
comfortable sofas, watching color TVs, while surfing on their smart
phones, all paid for by welfare. I wonder how many of these politicians
have ever visited poor areas, let alone spoke n to those who dwell
there. There are anecdotes aplenty, but evidence is nowhere to be
The face of poverty in America is not only Black, or Hispanic, but
also White, Asian, and many other colours.
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.
The rights expert said that 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 now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the
rich countries," said Prof Alston.
In September 2017, more than one in every eight Americans were living
in poverty (40 million, equal to 12.7% of the population).
And almost half of those (18.5 million) were living in deep poverty,
with reported family income below one-half of the poverty threshold.
According to the rights expert, what is known, from long experience
and in light of the government's human rights obligations, is that
there are indispensable ingredients for a set of policies designed
to eliminate poverty.
They include: democratic decision-making, full employment policies,
social protection for the vulnerable, a fair and effective justice
system, gender and racial equality and respect for human dignity,
responsible fiscal policies, and environmental justice.
"Currently, the United States falls far short on each of these
issues," the rights expert underlined.
DEMOCRACY BEING UNDERMINED
Prof Alston also said the foundation stone of American society is
democracy , but it is being steadily undermined.
The principle of one person one vote applies in theory, but it is
far from the reality. In the US, there is overt disenfranchisement
of vast numbers of felons, a rule which predominantly affects Black
citizens since they are the ones who se conduct is often specifically
targeted for criminalisation.
In addition, there are often requirement that persons who have paid
their debt to society still cannot regain their right to vote until
they paid off all out standing fines and fees.
Then there is covert disenfranchisement, which includes the dramatic
gerrymandering of electoral districts to privilege particular groups
of voters, the imposition of artificial and unnecessary voter ID requirements,
the blatant manipulation of polling station locations, the relocating
of DMVs to make i t more difficult for certain groups to obtain IDs,
and the general ramping up of obstacles to voting especially by those
"The net result is that people living in poverty, minorities,
and other dis favoured groups are being systematically deprived of
their voting rights."
The rights expert also highlighted some shortcomings in basic social
protection, citing major concerns over the plight of indigenous peoples,
children in poverty and adult dental care.
He noted that a shockingly high number of children in the US 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, 3 2% of Hispanics, and 37% of Native American infants and toddlers
are poor. The fi gure for Whites is 14%.
He also noted that homeless estimates published by the Department
of Housing and Urban Development in December 2017 show a nationwide
figure of 553,742, which includes 76,500 in New York, 55,200 in Los
Angeles, and 6,900 in San Francisco.
"In many cities and counties the criminal justice system is effectively
a system for keeping the poor in poverty while generating revenue
to fund not only the justice system but diverse other programs."
According to Prof Alston, so-called "fines and fees" are
piled up so that l ow level infractions become immensely burdensome,
a process that affects only the poorest members of society who pay
the vast majority of such penalties.
"Solutions to major social challenges in the US are increasingly
seen to li e with privatization. While the firms concerned have profited
handsomely, it is fa r from clear that optimum outcomes have been
achieved for the relevant client populations."
For example, bail bond corporations which exist in only one other
country i n the world, precisely because they distort justice, encourage
excessive and often unnecessary levels of bail, and fuel and lobby
for a system that by definition penalizes the poor.
TAX AND WELFARE REFORM
Prof Alston noted that deep and dramatic changes look likely to be
adopted in the space of the next few days as Congress considers a
final unified version of the Tax Bill.
From a human rights perspective, he said, the lack of public debate,
the closed nature of the negotiation, the exclusion of the representatives
of almost half of the American people from the process, and the inability
of elected representatives to know in any detail what they are being
asked to vote for, all raise major concerns.
While most other nations, and all of the major international institutions
such as the OECD, the World Bank, and the IMF have acknowledged that
extreme inequalities in wealth and income are economically inefficient
and socially damaging, the tax reform package is essentially a bid
to make the US the wo rld champion of extreme inequality.
As noted in the World Inequality Report 2018, in both Europe and the
US the top 1% of adults earned around 10% of national income in 1980.
In Europe that h as risen today to 12%, but in the US it has reached
In the same time period in the US, annual income earnings for the
top 1% ha ve risen by 205%, while for the top 0.001% the figure is
636%. By comparison, the average annual wage of the bottom 50% has
stagnated since 1980.
In calculating how the proposed tax cuts can be paid for, the Treasury
has explicitly listed welfare reform as an important source of revenue.
Indeed, various key officials have made the same point that major
cuts will need to be made in welfare provision.
"Given the extensive, and in some cases unremitting, cuts that
have been ma de in recent years, the consequences for an already overstretched
and inadequate system of social protection are likely to be fatal
for many programs, and possibly also for those who rely upon them,"
the rights expert cautioned.
Prof Alston also drew attention to the new information technologies,
saying that the term "new information technology" or "new
technology" is not well-defined, despite its frequent use.
It is commonly used for such widely different but inter-related phenomena
a s the spectacular increase in computing power, "Big Data",
machine learning, algorithms, artificial intelligence and robotization,
among other things.
These separate terms often also lack a clear definition, he said,
adding that while there are clear benefits to the rapid development
of new information techno logy, the risks are also increasingly clear.
"Much more attention needs to be given to the ways in which new
technology impacts the human rights of the poorest Americans. This
inquiry is of relevance to a much wider group since experience shows
that the poor are often a testing ground for practices and policies
that may then be applied to others," said the rights expert.