“Contempt for the Poor in US Drives Cruel Policies,” says UN expert

GENEVA (4 June 2018) – The United States’ principal strategy for dealing with extreme poverty is to criminalise and stigmatise those in need of assistance, a report by a UN independent expert has found.

“For one of the world’s wealthiest countries to have 40 million people living in poverty and over five million living in ‘Third World’ conditions is cruel and inhuman,” the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, said in a new report.

The report, to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on 21 June, delivers Alston’s findings from a fact-finding visit to California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. from 1 to 15 December 2017.

“The Trump Administration has brought in massive tax breaks for corporations and the very wealthy, while orchestrating a systematic assault on the welfare system,” he said. “The strategy seems to be tailor-made to maximize inequality and to plunge millions of working Americans, and those unable to work, into penury.

“Locking up the poor precisely because they are poor, greatly exaggerating the amount of fraud in the system, shaming those who need assistance, and devising ever more obstacles to prevent people from getting needed benefits, is not a strategy to reduce or eliminate poverty.

“It seems driven primarily by contempt, and sometimes even by hatred for the poor, along with a ‘winner takes all’ mentality”, said the independent human rights expert appointed by the Human Rights Council to look at poverty and human rights in countries around the world.

“The evidence is everywhere. On Skid Row in Los Angeles, 14,000 homeless persons were arrested in 2016 for urinating in public, while overall arrests in the city were declining. For those wondering what the problem is, the answer is not hard to find.  In 2016 there were only nine public toilets available for some 1,800 homeless individuals on Skid Row. The resulting ratio of one public toilet per 200 individuals would not even meet the minimum standards the UN sets for Syrian refugee camps.

“The legal system is used to raise revenue for states, not to promote justice, a pervasive problem across the country. Fines and fees are piled up so that low level infractions become immensely burdensome, a process that mostly affects the poorest members of society. At the same time, judges set large bail amounts for defendants awaiting trial, allowing the rich to pay their way to freedom, while the poor sit in jail unable to work or provide for their families. Some 11 million people are admitted to local jails annually, and on any given day more than 730,000 people are being held, of whom almost two thirds are awaiting trial and therefore presumed to be innocent.

“Contempt for the poor has intensified under the Trump Administration,” said Alston.

“Several political appointees with whom I spoke were completely sold on the narrative that the poor are scammers living high on welfare. This was reflected in the administration’s 2019 Budget which claims that many welfare recipients should instead be forced to find employment, and that many are defrauding the system. But the Trump Administration failed to provide me with any evidence of massive fraud or of the supposedly ample job opportunities for those currently receiving benefits. In fact, the evidence is that welfare fraud is not widespread and that most welfare recipients already work or are physically or mentally unable to work.

“The United States now has the highest income inequality in the Western world, the highest incarceration rate in the entire world, and one of the lowest turnout rates in elections among developed countries. It is no coincidence that high inequality coincides with the overt and covert disenfranchisement of millions and millions of American voters.

“The result is that democracy itself is under threat because of extreme inequality and the range of policies being pursued to make it worse.”

Mr. Philip Alston (Australia) took up his functions as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in June 2014.  As a Special Rapporteur, he is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Follow the Special Rapporteur on Twitter @Alston_UNSR and Facebook at www.facebook.com/AlstonUNSR