The United States, one of the world’s richest nations and the “land of opportunity,” is fast becoming a champion of inequality, according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston.
Entrenched poverty will be made far worse by policies being proposed by the Trump Administration, warned Philip Alston in a statement after a two-week fact-finding mission to California, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., as well as Puerto Rico.
“The American Dream is rapidly becoming the American Illusion, as the United States now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries,” said the independent human rights expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to look at poverty and human rights in countries around the world.
“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.
“There is no other developed country where so many voters are disenfranchised and where so few poor voters even care to go to the polls, and where ordinary voters ultimately have so little impact on political outcomes. There are no other developed countries in which so many citizens are behind bars.”
Political rights, poverty inextricably linked in Puerto Rico
If it were a state, Puerto Rico would be the poorest state in the Union. But Puerto Rico is not a state, it is a mere ‘territory,’ Alston said.
“In a country that likes to see itself as the oldest democracy in the world and a staunch defender of political rights on the international stage, more than 3 million people who live on the island have no power in their own capital,” he said.
Puerto Rico not only has a fiscal deficit, it also has a political rights deficit, and the two are not easily disentangled, he said.
During his eight-day visit to Puerto Rico, Alston met with the Executive Director of the Financial Oversight and Management Board that was imposed by Congress on Puerto Rico as part of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act.
“This statement is not the place to challenge the economics of the Board’s proposed polices, but there is little indication that social protection concerns feature in any significant way in the Board’s analyses,” he said.
“At a time when even the IMF is insisting that social protection should be explicitly factored into prescriptions for adjustment [i.e. austerity] it would seem essential that the Board take account of human rights and social protection concerns as it contemplates far-reaching decision on welfare reform, minimum wage and labor market regulation,” he added.
While Alson said it is not up to him to suggest any resolution to the hotly contested issue of Puerto Rico’s constitutional status, he said it is “clear is that many, probably most, Puerto Ricans believe deeply that they are presently colonized and that the U.S. Congress is happy to leave them in the no-man’s land of no meaningful Congressional representation and no ability to really move to govern themselves.”
“In light of recent Supreme Court jurisprudence and Congress’s adoption of PROMESA there would seem to be good reason for the UN Decolonization Committee to conclude that the island is no longer a self-governing territory,” Alston said.
Tax, welfare policies could be devastating
The Special Rapporteur expressed the fear that proposed changes in the direction of U.S. tax and welfare policies could have devastating consequences for the poorest 20 percent of Americans.
“The proposed tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world,” Alston said. “It will greatly increase the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest one percent and the poorest 50 percent of Americans.”
“The dramatic cuts in welfare, foreshadowed by President Trump 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,” Alston said.
“Several administration officials told me that as far as welfare reform is concerned, states are, in Justice Louis D. Brandeis’ famous phrase, ‘laboratories of innovation’. Recent proposals to drug-test welfare recipients in Wisconsin and West Virginia, along with Mississippi’s recent purge of its welfare rolls, raise concerns that the administration would happily look the other way while states conducted what were in essence unethical experiments on the poor.”
Alston’s final report on his U.S. visit will be available in Spring 2018 and will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2018.