A UN official who inquires about extreme poverty and human rights recently came to the US to check out our performance in those areas. (1) He had some interesting things to report:
“[Professor Philip Alston’s] 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. 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.
By most indicators, the US is one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Yet if we look at measures of how life is lived here in the US, our wealth has not produced the kind of health and freedom that people in other developed countries enjoy. (2)
- The US spends more on national defense than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined — yet we remain obsessed with “security”
- 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 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 US and its peer countries continues to grow.
- US inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries
- Neglected tropical diseases, including Zika, are increasingly common in the USA. 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 the world.
- America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of Turkmenistan, El Salvador, Cuba, Thailand and the Russian Federation. Its rate is nearly 5 times the OECD average.
- The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the OECD with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to less than 14% across the OECD.
- The Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty ranks the most well-off countries in terms of labor markets, poverty, safety net, wealth inequality, and economic mobility. The US comes in last of the top 10 most well-off countries, and 18th amongst the top 21.
- In the OECD the US ranks 35th out of 37 in terms of poverty and inequality.
- According to the World Income Inequality Database, the US has the highest Gini rate (measuring inequality) of all Western Countries
- 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 U.S. 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, compared with 91% in Canada (2015) and the UK (2016), 96% in Sweden (2014), and nearly 99% in Japan (2014).
Who are ‘the poor’?
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 the debate. The rich 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. To complete the picture we are also told that the poor who want to make it in America can easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough.
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 the American community. Who then are the poor? Racist stereotypes are usually not far beneath the surface.
The poor are overwhelmingly assumed to be people of color, 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 spoken to those who dwell there. There are anecdotes aplenty, but evidence is nowhere to be seen.
In every society, there are those who abuse the system, as much in the upper income levels, as in the lower. But the poor people I met from among the 40 million living in poverty were overwhelmingly either persons who had been born into poverty, or those who had been thrust there by circumstances largely beyond their control such as physical or mental disabilities, divorce, family breakdown, illness, old age, unlivable wages, or discrimination in the job market.
- The face of poverty in America is not only Black, or Hispanic, but also White, Asian, and many other colors. 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. 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 since the US now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries.
1) Professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. “Statement on visit to the USA,” December 2017. This is an excerpt from a much longer report.
2) The Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development (OECD) is a collection of 34 primarily western countries with market economies dedicated to economic development.