Report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights in the United States

What immediately struck me about the 2018 U.N. Special Rapporteur’s report was its title, which framed extreme poverty as a human rights issue – a conceptual association most Americans would find unusual, if not absurd. The prevailing narrative in our hyper-individualistic society is that poverty is a matter of personal responsibility, cultural values, or even morality. Human rights, on the other hand, apply almost exclusively to the political and legal realms, concerning matters such as freedom of speech or a right to due process; socioeconomic conditions are a separate issue altogether.

This is evident in how news reports about “human rights abuses” abroad almost always pertain to government crackdowns on protesters, media censorship, extrajudicial killings, and the like; the scourge of curable communicable diseases, infant mortality, stunted life expectancy, and other markers of extreme poverty are never reported or framed in this way. In fact, rarely does one hear about these problems in the news at all, which perhaps has to do with this artificial distinction: “real” human rights issues are seen as more dynamic and adversarial—the protester lobbing Molotov cocktails at the militant police officers of an authoritarian regime—and thus are more attention grabbing and stimulating. By contrast, the child in a distant rural African village meeting a terrible end from curable diarrheal disease does not make for gripping news, even though hundreds of thousands of children die this way before the age of five every year. To many Americans, there is no engaging political narrative here—it is a horrible tragedy but not a human rights issue.[1]

Of course, none of this is to suggest that human rights are an either/or choice between the political and the socioeconomic. Rather, this report proves that we must broaden our conception of human rights to entail all issues that affect human dignity and flourishing, and which we all have a duty to uphold and promote. Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that the report was commissioned by the Human Rights Council with the express purpose of evaluating whether the U.S. government’s approach to extreme poverty was “consistent with its human rights obligations.” While this may be stating the obvious, it is an easy statement to overlook, and I myself had taken it for granted without realizing how bold—and controversial—this conceptualization is to many Americans. Indeed, the report recognizes this problem and dedicates a whole section in the beginning to explain how and why extreme poverty is a human rights issue.

I also recognized the author of the report, Australian political scientist Philip Alston, who literally wrote the book on international human rights, titled International Human Rights in Context, Law, Politics, Morals. This massive and authoritative tome was the textbook for my International Human Rights class last spring, covering just about every aspect of the topic, from its philosophical and moral underpinnings, to its political and legal realities. Needless to say, I think it is a testament to the reformed Human Rights Council (whatever its continued flaws) that they appointed such an eminent expert on the subject to speak truth to power, as the U.S. is the most powerful—and increasingly anti-U.N. and anti-globalist—nation in the world.

Finally, I appreciated the way in which Alston opened the report by noting the sheer disparity between America’s wealth and resources, and the abysmal performance on metrics such as poverty, life expectancy, infant mortality, and more. It was a damning exposure of how short America falls from its potential; ours is a nation with a trillion dollar company (Apple), most of the world’s billionaires (including the richest, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, with around $90 billion fortune), and a military budget larger than the next twelve to fifteen nations combined (including are top rivals) is somehow unable to provide affordable healthcare, sustainable employment, or even indoor plumbing. The report thus reminds us that there is no excuse for the persistence of extreme poverty: no nation is richer, more technologically advanced, and more well-resourced than the U.S., yet few are performing so poorly in proportion to their economic potential.

The Substance of the Report and Some Takeaways
As befitting an academic with Alston’s credentials, the report is dense with data, statistics, and narrative accounts that capture the sheer scale and complexity of the problem – all in under twenty digestible pages. Alston covers every conceivable socioeconomic problem in the U.S., from the racial and classist discrimination that negatively colors public perceptions of poverty, to the impact that extreme poverty—and the lack of action against it—has on mental and physical health, political participation, and environmental degradation. The report is informed not only by a bevy of government and academic data, but by visits to numerous neglected and blighted locations and direct meetings with government officials, civil society members, and the poor themselves (who all too often are the objects, rather than the subjects, of otherwise well-intentioned humanitarian concern).

Thus, one would be hard-pressed to argue against the veracity Alston’s findings, given that they combine both dispassionate, clinical analysis with direct, on-the-ground experience (approaches to knowledge stereotypically favored by liberals and conservatives, respectively). It is an important reminder of how important it is that we human rights defenders take a holistic view of the problem; it is not enough to commission surveys or crunch hard data. What must do these things and more, combining the cold hard facts that are crucial to informing our responses, with the compassion and testimony that helps spur us (and ideally our target audience) into action.

The report was clearly intended for a wide audience, given its easily navigable format, avoidance of legalese, and succinct length. Alston was thus wearing his advocate hat in place of his academic one, making sure that his findings could be absorbed by policymakers, legislature, human rights lawyers, and the average citizen. These observations, discussions, and policy prescriptions will do no good if they are kept within the same scholarly and legal communities but must be broadened to include all “stakeholders” (to whom Alston explicitly directed this report, in addition to government officials). This is a crucial lesson for those of us whose human rights work will, and should ideally, encompass broad swathes of humanity—maybe even all of humanity—most of whom do not have the unique educational background, vocabulary, or access to information that the average attorney, or even the average law student, has

This is not to suggest that we should patronize the subjects of the report, or other human rights victims and client, or make assumptions about their intelligence or resourcefulness. Rather, the idea is to avoid condescension, step down from the Ivory Tower of policy and philosophical debate, and engage directly with those we presume to represent and help, as Alston. That means knowing our audience and how to frame our narrative in a way that is relatable, easy to understand, and effective. This in turn requires adaptability and a willingness to change our approaches depending on whether we’re talking to victims of sexual trauma or abject poverty, government officials, or NGO partners.

True to the purpose of the report, Alston weaves a cohesive and comprehensive narrative that links all these seemingly disparate issues to one overarching theme: an unwillingness by the U.S. government to tackle the multifaceted causes of extreme poverty. Hence the proposed solutions are not simple and straightforward but reflect this complexity. It is not enough to simply slash taxes and regulations in the hope that businesses will suddenly invest their already ample capital into hiring more people—indeed, Alston stridently took to task the Trump tax cuts, among other supply-side policies.

Rather, the U.S. government must, inter alia, recognize extreme inequality as a problem that needs to be addressed; expand human rights to include access to healthcare; and cease demonizing the taxes that can provide well needed revenue for addressing extreme poverty and its attending maladies. What I found interesting about many of these recommendations was their emphasis on the cultural underpinnings of these problems: the fact that Americans (and by extension their government) do not see healthcare as a right like due process and freedom of speech is why solutions to healthcare are lacking. Similarly, the demonization of taxes and “big government” is why it is difficult for the government to even launch these projects in the first place. The report thus acknowledges that so many human rights problems require not only practical political solutions, but a reframing of our core values, perspectives, and attitudes. After all, it is difficult to solve extreme poverty when you regard it as an individual rather than a societal problem, or if you see it as a just outcome for laziness or irresponsibility rather than a product of misaligned incentives, misallocated resources, bad actors, and political neglect.

While I think this is the right approach, it also means that we have a long fight ahead of us. Attitudes and cultural values take time to change, sometimes generations or even millennia; witness the length of time it took for the subjugation of women or the practice of slavery—each considered an unquestionable given for the bulk of human history—to finally become socially unacceptable and soon after politically address—and still there is much work to be done in these areas. (Indeed, the very concept of human rights, let alone the term, came to recognizable form only two or three centuries ago, at the earliest.) Given our nation’s slowness to change (slavery took a war to end, the Civil Rights Movement was not that long ago, etc.) I wonder how long it will be before the government, and we the people, take these recommendations to heart, much less follow through on solutions.

This is not to sound pessimistic or defeatist, but to caution that we may have to take the long view, manage expectations, and remember that the moral arc of progress often moves long distances—but move it does. Perhaps someday we will look back on how we treat poverty and lack of healthcare with the same astonishment and shame as we do slavery or the oppression of women (for the most part, anyway).

On the other hand, one could argue that this is a unique moment in U.S. history, a point wherein the collective conscience of the nation, if not the world, was shocked by the state of the current political climate. There is a saying that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, and while it is easy for those of us who are privileged to say, it is sadly true that it takes such events to rouse people from their apathy and force them to become more introspective. Thus, perhaps Alston’s report was well-timed, seeing as an increasingly number of Americans—especially the younger ones who will soon come of voting age and political office—are questioning many of the counterproductive cultural attitudes and ideas underpinning our sorry response to poverty.

My final comment on the report is that it should have focused more on the role of the private sector in perpetuating extreme poverty, or at least for failing to act against it. While it is true that the government is the final arbiter of conduct—through laws, regulation, and police power—in the U.S. especially, private companies wield tremendous power over policy, politics, and the national conversation. In theory, the government would not have to intervene to address extreme poverty if major employers such as Walmart and McDonald’s took it upon themselves to allocate their vast resources to employees. Jeff Bezos could spare a mere fraction of his $90 billion fortune to improve the lot of his workers and still keep costs down to consumers, while remaining fabulously wealthy. If landlords settled for less profit, perhaps rents would be more affordable; if property developers stopped building solely to appeal to luxury buyers, perhaps cheaper accommodations would be available. And so on and so forth. This power imbalance between the average American and economic elites, and the failure of the latter to use their power in more socially responsible ways, accounts for much of the extreme poverty highlighted in the report.

Thus I believe many of Alston’s recommendations apply as much to private sector actors as governmental ones, and I would add some of the following: more support for workers’ co-ops and unions, which level the economic playing field; promoting a business culture that is more socially responsible and considers the long-term implications ahead of short-term profits; changing the way we undervalue “unskilled” or non-managerial / administrative work (and those who perform them); land instilling a culture of volunteerism, charity, and community that would underpin more “pro-social” policies, politicians, and business practices. This is all easier said than done of course, but such is the nature of a problem as deep and intractable as extreme poverty.

The American Response to the Report
True to form, the U.S. reaction, as far as I could tell, was muted at best and indignant at worst. I found very little acknowledge of the report, let alone responses, outside of the usual progressive and humanitarian circles. The only substantive and critical reaction I could find was from none other than the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, whose criticisms and counterarguments reflected many of the sentiments and assumptions I outlined earlier as typical of most Americans.

In an opinion piece published in the National Review, one of the nation’s leading conservative publications, Haley slammed the report as “patently ridiculous … misleading … unnecessary, politically biased, factually wrong, and a waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars.”[2] (A view many conservative commentators affirmed.) She characterized the report as consisting of just “a single researcher” visiting a limited number of places for a limited amount of time. Alston’s recommendations were “farcical” and read like a “socialist manifesto.” She even threw in a line about the U.S. accounting for one-third of the U.N.’s budget, as if to suggest that the organization better not step out of line like this, or else. (Indeed, just weeks after the report was published, Haley would trumpet America’s departure from the Human Rights Council that commissioned it, ostensibly on the grounds that it is unduly biased against Israel.)

Haley’s response was long on indignation, but short on facts. She asserts that her home state of South Carolina, where she served as governor, brought a “record-breaking” number of new jobs, increased investment in education, and moved thousands “from welfare to work.” She makes the same claims of the Trump Administration she serves, which is very focused on extreme poverty and which has enacted economic policies that have “helped bring unemployment down to the lowest level in decades,” and has passed a tax reform law that will “direct billions in new capital into distressed communities in every state.” There are further assertions about median household income hitting “record highs,” wages rising faster under Trump for the low- and middle-class, and there being “more job openings than unemployed workers.”

Setting aside the fact that none of these claims are backed by figures, data, or citations—unlike the facts in the report that they purport to counter—they totally miss the forest for the trees. It is not enough for there to be more job openings than unemployed workers because, as Alston points out in a section aptly titled “An illusory emphasis on employment,” the quality of jobs being created is insufficient for sustaining long-term prosperity.

Similarly, even if we grant that median household income has reached a record high, that means little when adjusted for the increased cost of living—in particular education, shelter, and healthcare.[3] Moreover, if the U.S. government is investing so much attention and capital to its most blighted communities, why do so many communities continues lack clean drinking water—see the over-four-year saga of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis—proper sanitation, and basic infrastructure, as highlighted in great detail by the report?

Perhaps the most interesting part of the report is Haley’s “whataboutism” with respect to the report’s examination of the U.S.:

It is patently ridiculous for the U.N. to spend its scarce resources — more of which come from the United States than from any other country — studying poverty in the wealthiest country in the world, a country where the vast majority is not in poverty, and where public and private-sector social safety nets are firmly in place to help those who are.

Instead, the U.N. might have studied poverty in the Congo, where 60 percent of the entire population lacks the basics of food and electricity. Or Burundi, where the typical annual income is $280. Or Venezuela, where narco-state dictators have driven a once prosperous country into the ground with an inflation rate over 25,000 percent, and where diseases that were once thought eliminated are now reappearing.

When there are many dozens of countries where poverty consumes most of the population, and where corrupt governments deliberately make the problem much worse, why would the U.N. study poverty in America? The answer is politics.

It is here where Haley’s critique is at its most defensive. In essence, her sentiment is “How dare these globalists harshly criticize the greatest country in the world?” – something many increasingly-insular and nationalistic Americans would concur with. The temerity to subject the U.S. to the sort of scrutiny best reserved for inferior nations. The U.S. is above reproach, not only because it pays these U.N. bureaucrats’ bills, but because it is so much richer and better than so many other countries, and doesn’t have nearly as severe a level of poverty.

Well, that is in fact the point: It is because the U.S. is so wealthy that we should examine how such wealth and resources haven’t translated to broader prosperity for all. Congo, Burundi, and Venezuela do not claim the level of exceptionalism we do, nor do they have anywhere near the wealth, stability, institutional competency, and other instruments of prosperity that are plentiful in the U.S. yet underutilized or mismanaged. Plus, two wrongs do not make a right: that other countries have it worse does not somehow abrogate our responsibility to do better for our citizens, especially as the greatest country in the world.

Moreover, Alston’s report made a point of comparing the U.S. to countries with similar economic, political, and social profile; we perform poorly by developed world standards, not compared to the world’s poorest and most unstable states, which are on a totally different playing field. (Besides, as Ambassador to the U.N., she should know that U.N. Human Rights Council conducts reports of these kinds for nearly all the world’s countries—but then again, the U.S. did leave the body fairly soon after she was appointed, so perhaps she had not had the chance to learn this. Thus, there is no need to take the report so personally.)

In any event, it should not matter that the U.S. could be so much worse, or that its impoverished citizens fare comparatively better than those in failed states. What matters is that no one need be abjectly poor in the first place, especially in a country with so capital sloshing around in our government budget, corporate coffers, and financial system. What matters is that so many people suffer needlessly, not because we are mired in war, famine, societal collapse, or some other potentially excusable calamity, but because our economic and political paradigms fail to allocate resources properly, be it the government spending too much on the military, or companies diverting more funds to executives than to average workers.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts
I focus on Haley’s reaction not only because hers was the most prominent (she is after all our representative to the U.N.) but because it encapsulates precisely the attitude most Americans harbor, and which Alston’s report identified as part of what is holding us back as a society. The rest of the world should mind its own business. We’re the biggest game in town and shouldn’t be messed with. Unsurprisingly, this matches prevailing rhetoric of the U.S. abroad, where longtime allies are shunned and insulted, global institutions are undermined, and the very idea of an international system—much less international human rights—is disparaged as globalist encroachments on sovereignty.

One thing is for certain: now is an interesting time to be an international human rights advocate. For better and for worse, we are being challenged like never before. Though the negative consequences are obvious, the silver-lining is that such anti-humanist rhetoric, both at home and abroad, may be push that we and our potential allies (and even some ideological opponents) need to come together and act. Once enough Americans see firsthand how the U.N. report plays out versus the claims of this administration and its backers, maybe Alston’s recommendation will be taken to heart—one vote, legal case, or lobbying effort at a time.

To quote one accurate observation by Haley’s National Review piece, extreme poverty, like so many other human rights issues, is a “multidimensional” and complex problem; thus, it will require a multidimensional approach on the part of human rights lawyers and activists. We must combine different strategies, competencies, concentrations, and perspectives if we are going to tackle the myriad of cultural, political, and economic issues that make these problems so persistent. However, acrimonious, at least we are having a conservation from which to learn from and begin.

[1] Psychologist Paul Slovik coined the term “psychic numbing” to describe our inability to be moved by large scale tragedies, such as genocide, due in part to the “dry statistics” having less emotional impact that one recognizable or dynamic incident. “‘If I look at the mass I will never act’: Psychic numbing and genocide,” Decision Research and University of Oregon.

[2] Haley, Nikki, The United Nations’ Patently Ridiculous Report on American Poverty (July 9, 2018)

[3] Stagnating salaries: Real US wages are essentially back at 1974 levels, Pew reports, USA Today

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