Seattle’s homelessness and housing crises are part of a much larger and concerning problem of American poverty, according to a United Nations expert’s recent report.
“I think the United States has an incomparable record,” Philip Alston told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “It’s one of the world’s richest countries, by far, but it’s also a country with very high poverty rates — 40 million — and half of those people are living in extreme poverty and therefore dire circumstances. We have the highest child poverty rates in the United States. It has the lowest levels of social well-being across a range of indicators.”
“The big difference with the United States is that when I go to other countries, they say, ‘We just don’t have the money. We can’t afford to provide basic services to the poorest in our community,’” he said. “The United States, on the other hand, clearly does have the money. It just mobilized one-and-a-half trillion dollars in the tax reform to assist the super-rich. It could have diverted a small amount of those resources to helping the super-poor.”
Alston is the United Nation’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty. He recently toured the country, documenting the current state of American poverty. What he found: unsanitary conditions; that poverty disproportionately affects people of color and women; that it affects large numbers of white people; and that America’s trumpet call for human rights is often not heard within its own borders.
“It is pretty shocking to see, in the midst of a very rich developed country, pockets that remind one very much of living in a third world country,” he said.
It didn’t matter if he was on Skid Row in Los Angeles or a poor community in Alabama, America’s inequality problem spared no region. It’s something that Western Washington is quite familiar with — tents lining sidewalks and underneath roadways; an opioid crisis leaving used syringes scattered on the ground; people unable to afford or obtain affordable housing; and a homeless service system that is unable to keep up with demand.
Alston does not place American poverty on the current president. Rather, he points the finger more toward Congress and years-worth of policies. He does, however, worry about affects the Trump administration’s actions will have on the crisis.
“The combination of the tax cuts … and the massive reductions in the already-low welfare benefits we are going to see in the next year will produce a much less functioning society,” Alston said. “It will exacerbate the differences between the hyper-rich and the poor and will lead to demands for significant change. That puts the political system under pressure. Which is why academics are worried about the sustainability of American democracy because democracy does depend on each of the citizens feeling they have a stake in the overall system. If even the middle classes are going to start being eclipsed in the roles they play, that should have pretty big implications. That’s worrying.”
Alston says that many poor voters have simply given up on the system. Large swaths of poor groups are disenfranchised. For example, the criminal system disproportionately puts minorities in jail, then felons cannot vote. There have also been cases where voting stations are placed where poorer people cannot easily access them.
What America needs to realize, according to the poverty expert, is that government and regulation are not evil things, rather, they economically benefit different groups at different times. But poor people are disadvantaged all the time.
“If you are born in a poor area, if you have bad nutrition from the outset if you get no adequate health care if you go to lousy schools — you don’t have equality of opportunity,” Alston said. “There’s no way you are going to make it from there to the middle classes.”
“I think what the United States needs more than anything else is a mirror,” he said. “It needs to look at the realities. It doesn’t actually need other countries to tell it how to get its act together. The United States has immense capacities, great innovations, an extraordinary work ethic. What it doesn’t have is a belief that all members of its society deserve, at least, basic social conditions.”
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