Extreme Poverty and Human Rights in America


Professor Philip Alston is the current Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, recently compiled a report on his visit to some cities in the United States of America. Over a two-week period, he traveled to California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington DC. Not limiting himself to experts and civil society groups, he met with senior state and federal government officials. Alston also spoke with many people who are “homeless or living in deep poverty.” What Alston found is both disturbing and disheartening.

In what is recognized as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, forty million people live in poverty. Prior to the Trump administrations recent tax reforms, the situation was bleak. These new policies will likely drive the inequality between the wealthiest 1% and the poorest 50% of Americans to even higher levels.

The Special Rapporteur defines “extreme poverty’ as living beyond a low or non-existent income. The United Nations considers extreme poverty as involving a “lack of income, a lack of access to basic services, and social exclusion.” These criteria would include “deprivations at the household level, including in health, schooling and living conditions.”


  •             In a country that spends more on national defense than “China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined,” the USA has poverty rates that are the “highest amongst the six richest countries – Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Norway.” Those are staggering numbers.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) health care expenditures in the US per capita are double the average and “and much higher than in all other countries”. Despite those numbers, the US has fewer doctors and hospital beds than the OECD average. What does that mean? While the US spends more on healthcare, there aren’t as many doctors or facilities to accommodate the needs of the citizens. Added to this concerning statistic is that research shows “US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world.”

  • “Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy, and the “health gap” between the U.S. and its peer countries continues to grow.”

How do these statistics relate to poverty in the United States? Is extreme poverty a human rights issue?

  •       Extreme poverty opens the door for a small group of “elites” to dominate and reduce the human rights of minorities.

poverty-in-americaThink about that for a minute in relation to the current situation in the United States. The US has the HIGHEST income inequality in the Western World. What groups in the US live in extreme poverty? Forty million Americans live in poverty with over eighteen million of those living in extreme poverty. Forty percent of American adults are unable to cover an unexpected expense of $400! A health emergency, housing issue, transportation problem could easily cost that much or more.

The Trump administration is pursuing a “welfare policy” that will diminish the number of Americans who currently have health insurance (Obamacare) over time. There is a belief that people who get government benefits are capable of working and must work although there is evidence this is not true. Adding ever more restrictions to current services that assist those who live in poverty, such as food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies, and cash transfers, may cause millions to be forced off existing benefits. A recent Republican backed Farm Bill will impose stricter work requirements on up to 7 million food stamp recipients. This might also affect the tens of thousands of serving military personnel whose families need to depend on food stamps, and the 1.5 million low-income veterans who receive them.

  •       “In global healthy life expectancy rankings, the US came 40th.” A recent report from the World Health Organization shows that “babies born in China today will live longer healthy lives than babies born in America.” African-American maternal mortality rates in the US are almost double those in Thailand! What does this say about extreme poverty in the US? children poverty

The report by Professor Philip Alston indicates millions of Americans are negatively impacted by growing inequality and “widespread poverty” affecting almost one in every five children. The effects on the quality of life, education and employment opportunities, and healthcare deteriorate under these cirumstances.


Alston documents ”the ways in which democracy is being undermined, the poor and homeless are being criminalized for being poor, and the criminal justice system is being privatized in ways that work well for the rich but that seriously disadvantage the poor.  Underlying all of these developments is persistent and chronic racial bias.”


2016 Statistics

Unless this crisis in America is addressed in a constructive manner, the democracy   our founding fathers designed will be lost. Taxation policies must be examined and redrawn in order to benefit all Americans, not just the wealthy. Racism must be recognized as the vile crime it is and those who are racists (admitted or denied) must be held accountable for their actions. Quality education, housing, and healthcare have to be made available to ALL Americans, whatever their race, religion, or gender. The need for universal healthcare must become a priority. “This would rescue millions from misery, save money on emergency care, increase employment, and generate a healthier and more productive workforce.”

If we truly want to make America great again we need to stand up to the injustices, prejudices, and inequality that ravage our country. These are not Republican vs Democrat issues or Conservative vs Liberal beliefs. These are basic human rights issues. If we want to be the UNITED States of America, we need to unite in working toward a better country for all citizens.

Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

Featured Image: NY Times; The U.S. Can No Longer Hide From Its Deep Poverty Problem

Professor Philip Alston







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