Wednesday, 15 January, 2020

Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on his mission to the US (Part 1)

Human Rights Council
Thirty-eighth session
18 June–6 July 2018
Agenda item 3

Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil,
political, economic, social and cultural rights,
including the right to development

Note by the Secretariat

The Secretariat has the honour to transmit to the Human Rights Council the report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, on his mission to the United States of America from 1 to 15 December 2017. The purpose of the visit was to evaluate, and report to the Human Rights Council on, the extent to which the Government’s policies and programmes aimed at addressing extreme poverty are consistent with its human rights obligations and to offer constructive recommendations to the Government and other stakeholders.

I. Introduction

1. The Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights visited the United States of America from 1 to 15 December 2017, in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 35/19. The purpose of the visit was to report to the Council on the extent to which the Government’s policies and programmes relating to extreme poverty are consistent with its human rights obligations and to offer constructive recommendations to the Government and other stakeholders. The Special Rapporteur is grateful to the Government for inviting him, for facilitating his visit and for continuing its cooperation with the Council’s accountability mechanisms that apply to all States.1

2. During his visit, the Special Rapporteur met with government officials at the federal, state, county and city levels, members of Congress, representatives of civil society, academics and people living in poverty. He also received more than 40 detailed written submissions in advance of his visit.2 He visited California (Los Angeles and San Francisco), Alabama (Lowndes County and Montgomery), Georgia (Atlanta), Puerto Rico (San Juan, Guayama and Salinas), West Virginia (Charleston) and Washington, D.C. He is deeply grateful to all those who organized community consultations for him in these locations, and to the US Human Rights Network, which devoted a full day of its 2017 national convening in Atlanta to his country visit.

3. The strict word limit for this report makes it impossible to delve deeply into even the key issues. Fortunately, there is already much excellent scholarship and many civil society analyses of the challenges of poverty in the United States.3 In the present report, the Special Rapporteur aims to bring together some of those analyses, identify the key poverty-related problems and explain the relevance of the international human rights obligations of the United States in this context. As with all such country visits, the consideration of the report by the Human Rights Council will enable other States to examine the extent to which the United States is living up to its international obligations.

II. Overview

4. The United States is a land of stark contrasts. It is one of the world’s wealthiest societies, a global leader in many areas, and a land of unsurpassed technological and other forms of innovation. Its corporations are global trendsetters, its civil society is vibrant and sophisticated and its higher education system leads the world. But its immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live. About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty.4 It has the highest youth poverty rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the highest infant mortality rates among comparable OECD States. Its citizens live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies, eradicable tropical diseases are increasingly prevalent, and it has the world’s highest incarceration rate, one of the lowest levels of voter registrations in among OECD countries and the highest obesity levels in the developed world.

5. The United States has the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries.5 The $1.5 trillion in tax cuts in December 2017 overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy and worsened inequality. The consequences of neglecting poverty and promoting inequality are clear. The United States has one of the highest poverty and inequality levels among the OECD countries, and the Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty ranks it 18th out of 21 wealthy countries in terms of labour markets, poverty rates, safety nets, wealth inequality and economic mobility. But in 2018 the United States had over 25 per cent of the world’s 2,208 billionaires.6 There is thus a dramatic contrast between the immense wealth of the few and the squalor and deprivation in which vast numbers of Americans exist. For almost five decades the overall policy response has been neglectful at best, but the policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship.

6. The visit of the Special Rapporteur coincided with the dramatic change of direction in relevant United States policies. The new policies: (a) provide unprecedentedly high tax breaks and financial windfalls to the very wealthy and the largest corporations; (b) pay for these partly by reducing welfare benefits for the poor; (c) undertake a radical programme of financial, environmental, health and safety deregulation that eliminates protections mainly benefiting the middle classes and the poor; (d) seek to add over 20 million poor and middle class persons to the ranks of those without health insurance; (e) restrict eligibility for many welfare benefits while increasing the obstacles required to be overcome by those eligible; (f) dramatically increase spending on defence, while rejecting requested improvements in key veterans’ benefits; (g) do not provide adequate additional funding to address an opioid crisis that is decimating parts of the country; and (h) make no effort to tackle the structural racism that keeps a large percentage of non-Whites7 in poverty and near poverty.

7. In a 2017 report, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) captured the situation even before the impact of these aggressively regressive redistributive policies had been felt, stating that the United States economy “is delivering better living standards for only the few”, and that “household incomes are stagnating for a large share of the population, job opportunities are deteriorating, prospects for upward mobility are waning, and economic gains are increasingly accruing to those that are already wealthy”.8

8. The share of the top 1 per cent of the population in the United States has grown steadily in recent years. In 2016 they owned 38.6 per cent of total wealth. In relation to both wealth and income the share of the bottom 90 per cent has fallen in most of the past 25 years.9 The tax reform will worsen this situation and ensure that the United States remains the most unequal society in the developed world. The planned dramatic cuts in welfare will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes. Since economic and political power reinforce one another, the political system will be even more vulnerable to capture by wealthy elites.

9. This situation bodes ill not only for the poor and middle class in America, but for society as a whole, with high poverty levels “creating disparities in the education system, hampering human capital formation and eating into future productivity”.10 There are also global consequences. The tax cuts will fuel a global race to the bottom, thus further reducing the revenues needed by Governments to ensure basic social protection and meet their human rights obligations. And the United States remains a model whose policies other countries seek to emulate.

10. Defenders of the status quo point to the United States as the land of opportunity and the place where the American dream can come true because the poorest can aspire to the ranks of the richest. But today’s reality is very different. The United States now has one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility of any of the rich countries.11 Zip codes, which are usually reliable proxies for race and wealth, are tragically reliable predictors of a child’s future employment and income prospects. High child and youth poverty rates perpetuate the intergenerational transmission of poverty very effectively, and ensure that the American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion. The equality of opportunity, which is so prized in theory, is in practice a myth, especially for minorities and women, but also for many middle-class White workers.

11. New technologies now play a central role in either exacerbating or reducing poverty levels in the United States. Some commentators are singularly optimistic in this regard and highlight the many potential benefits of new technologies, including those based on artificial intelligence, for poverty reduction efforts in fields as diverse as health care, transportation, the environment, criminal justice, and economic inclusion.12 Others acknowledge the downsides, and especially the potential negative effects of automation and robotization on future employment levels and job security.13 But remarkably little attention has been given to the specific impact of these new technologies on the lives of the poor in American society today.14 Such inquiries have significance well beyond that pertaining to the poor, since experience shows that those in poverty are often a testing ground for practices and policies subsequently applied more broadly. In the present report, the Special Rapporteur seeks to stimulate deeper reflection on the impact of new technologies on the human rights of the poorest.

III. Human rights dimension

12. Successive administrations, including the current one, have determinedly rejected the idea that economic and social rights are full-fledged human rights, despite their clear recognition not only in key treaties that the United States has ratified, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, but also in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United States has long insisted other countries must respect. But denial does not eliminate responsibility, nor does it negate obligations. International human rights law recognizes a right to education, a right to health care, a right to social protection for those in need and a right to an adequate standard of living. In practice, the United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that, while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable health care or growing up in a context of total deprivation. Since the United States has refused to accord domestic recognition to the economic and social rights agreed by most other States in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other treaties,15 except for the recognition of some social rights, and especially the right to education, in state constitutions, the primary focus of the present report is on those civil and political rights reflected in the United States Bill of Rights and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the United States has ratified.

IV. Who are “the poor”?

13. In thinking about poverty, it is striking how much weight is given to caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between rich and poor that are consistently peddled by some politicians and media. 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. If the poor really want to make it in the United States, they can easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough. The reality, however, is very different. Many of the wealthiest citizens do not pay taxes at the rates that others do, hoard much of their wealth offshore and often make their profits purely from speculation rather than contributing to the overall wealth of the American community.

14. In imagining the poor, racist stereotypes are usually not far beneath the surface. The poor are overwhelmingly assumed to be people of colour, whether African Americans or Hispanic “immigrants”. The reality is that there are 8 million more poor Whites than there are poor Blacks.16 The face of poverty in America is not only Black or Hispanic, but also White, Asian and many other backgrounds.

15. Similarly, large numbers of welfare recipients are assumed to be living high on “the dole”. Some politicians and political appointees with whom the Special Rapporteur spoke were completely sold on the narrative of such scammers sitting on comfortable sofas, watching cable television or spending their days on their smartphones, all paid for by welfare. The Special Rapporteur wonders how many of those politicians have ever visited poor areas, let alone spoken to those who dwell there. There are anecdotes aplenty, but little evidence. In every society, there are those who abuse the system, as much in the upper income levels as in the lower. But in reality, the poor are overwhelmingly those born into poverty, or those thrust there by circumstances largely beyond their control, such as physical or mental disabilities, divorce, family breakdown, illness, old age, unliveable wages or discrimination in the job market.

V. Current extent of poverty in the United States of America

16. There is considerable debate over the extent of poverty in the United States, but the present report relies principally upon official government statistics, especially from the United States Census Bureau. It defines and quantifies poverty in America based on “poverty thresholds” or official poverty measures, updated each year. These thresholds have been used since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty in the 1960s and use a set of dollar value thresholds that vary by family size and composition to determine who is in poverty.17 Following much criticism of the official poverty measures, the Census Bureau developed a supplemental poverty measure, which is preferred by many experts.18 According to the official poverty measures, in 2016, 12.7 per cent of Americans were living in poverty;19 according to the supplemental poverty measure, the figure was 14 per cent.20 VI. Problems with existing governmental policies

17. There is no magic recipe for eliminating extreme poverty, and each level of government must make its own good-faith decisions. At the end of the day, however, particularly in a rich country like the United States, the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power. With political will, it could readily be eliminated. What is known, from long experience and in the light of the Government’s human rights obligations, is that there are indispensable ingredients for a set of policies designed to eliminate poverty. They include: democratic decision-making, full employment policies, social protection for the vulnerable, a fair and effective justice system, gender and racial equality, respect for human dignity, responsible fiscal policies and environmental justice. As shown below, the United States falls well short on each of these measures.

A. Undermining of democracy

18. The cornerstone of American society is democracy, but it is being steadily undermined, and with it the human right to political participation protected in article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The principle of one person, one vote applies in theory, but is increasingly far from the reality.

19. In a democracy, the task of government should be to facilitate political participation by ensuring that all citizens can vote and that their votes will count equally. However, in the United States there is overt disenfranchisement of more than 6 million felons and ex-felons,21 which predominantly affects Black citizens since they are the ones whose conduct is often specifically targeted for criminalization. In addition, nine states currently condition the restoration of the right to vote after prison on the payment of outstanding fines and fees. A typical outcome is that seen in Alabama, where a majority of all ex-felons cannot vote.22

20. Then there is covert disenfranchisement, which includes the dramatic gerrymandering of electoral districts to privilege particular groups of voters, the imposition of artificial and unnecessary voter identification requirements, the blatant manipulation of polling station locations, the relocation of Departments of Motor Vehicles’ offices to make it more difficult for certain groups to obtain identification, and the general ramping up of obstacles to voting, especially for those without resources. The net result is that people living in poverty, minorities and other disfavoured groups are being systematically deprived of their right to vote.

21. It is thus unsurprising that the United States has one of the lowest turnout rates in elections among developed countries, with only 55.7 per cent of the voting-age population casting ballots in the 2016 presidential election.23 Registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the United States than in just about any other OECD country. Only about 64 per cent of the United States voting-age population was registered in 2016, compared with 91 per cent in Canada and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 96 per cent in Sweden and nearly 99 per cent in Japan. Low turnouts are also explained by the perception that election outcomes will have no impact on the lives of poor people. One politician remarked to the Special Rapporteur on how few campaign appearances most politicians bother to make in overwhelmingly poor districts, which reflects the broader absence of party representation for low-income and working-class voters.24 22. The link between poverty and the absence of political rights is perfectly illustrated by Puerto Rico. If it were a state, it would be the poorest in the Union. But it is not a state, it is a mere “territory”. Puerto Ricans who live on the island have no representative with full voting rights in Congress and cannot vote in presidential elections, although they can vote in Presidential primaries. In a country that likes to see itself as the oldest democracy in the world and a staunch defender of political rights on the international stage, more than 3 million people who live on the island have no real power in their own capital.

23. Puerto Rico has a fiscal deficit and a political rights deficit, and the two are not easily disentangled. The Special Rapporteur met with the Executive Director of the Financial Oversight and Management Board that was imposed by Congress in 2016 on Puerto Rico as part of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. There is little indication that social protection concerns feature in a meaningful way in the Board’s analyses. At a time when even the IMF is insisting that social protection should be explicitly factored into prescriptions for fiscal adjustment (i.e., austerity), the Board should take account of human rights and social protection concerns as it contemplates far-reaching decisions on welfare reform, minimum wage and labour market deregulation.

24. It is not for the Special Rapporteur to suggest any resolution to the hotly contested issue of the constitutional status of Puerto Rico. Many interlocutors, however, made clear the widespread feeling that Puerto Ricans consider their territory to be colonized and that the United States Congress is happy to leave them in a limbo in which they have neither meaningful Congressional representation nor the ability to govern themselves. In the light of recent Supreme Court jurisprudence and Congress’s adoption of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act there seems to be good reason for the Special Political and Decolonization Committee of the United Nations to conclude that the island is no longer a self-governing territory.

B. Shortcomings in basic social protection

25. It is sometimes argued that President Johnson’s war on poverty has failed miserably because, despite the “trillions of taxpayer dollars” spent on welfare programmes over the past five decades, the official poverty rate has remained largely unchanged.25 The proposed solution then is to downsize the safety net by making it more “efficient”, “targeted” and “evidence-based”, while underlining the need to move “from welfare to work”.26

26. These ideas underpin both Speaker Paul Ryan’s blueprint for welfare reform27 and the budget proposed by President Donald Trump for the fiscal year 2019, which decries “stubbornly high” enrolment in welfare programmes, and describes millions of Americans as being “in a tragic state of dependency on a welfare system that does not reward work, and in many cases, pays people not to work”.28

27. The available evidence, however, points in a very different direction. A 2014 White House report concluded that the war on poverty had been highly successful.29 Based on the supplemental poverty measure, poverty rates in the United States fell from 26 per cent in 1967 to 16 per cent in 2012 — a decline of nearly 40 per cent.30 The Census Bureau calculates that programmes such as Social Security, refundable tax credits (earned income tax credit), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Supplemental Security Income programme and housing subsidies collectively prevented about 44 million Americans from falling into poverty in 2016.31

28. The following sections address shortcomings in both the existing social protection system for the poorest Americans and in the assumptions underlying the administration’s policy responses.

An illusory emphasis on employment

29. Proposals to slash the meagre welfare arrangements that currently exist are now sought to be justified primarily on the basis that the poor need to leave welfare and go to work. The assumption, especially in a thriving economy, is that there are a great many jobs out there waiting to be filled by individuals with low educational qualifications, often with disabilities of one kind or another, sometimes burdened with a criminal record (often poverty related), without meaningful access to health care, and with no training or effective assistance to obtain employment. It also assumes that the jobs they could get will make them independent of state assistance.

30. In reality, the job market for such people is extraordinarily limited, and even more so for those without basic forms of social protection and support. The case of Walmart, the largest employer in the United States, is instructive. Many of its workers cannot survive on a full-time wage in the absence of food stamps. This fits in a broader trend: the share of households that, while having earnings, also receive nutrition assistance rose from 19.6 per cent in 1989 to 31.8 per cent in 2015.32 Up to $6 billion annually goes from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other public assistance programmes to support workers in firms like Walmart, providing a huge indirect subsidy to the relevant corporations.33 Walmart lobbied heavily for tax reform,34 from which it will save billions, and then announced it would spend an additional $700 million in increasing employee wages and benefits for its workers.35 But the resulting rise in the debt of the United States, due in part to the tax reform,36 has then been used to justify a proposed 30 per cent cut in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding over a decade.37

31. In terms of job availability, the reality is very different from that portrayed by the welfare-to-work proponents. Despite the strong economy, there has been a long-term decline in employment rates; by 2017, only 89 per cent of males aged 25 to 54 were employed.38 While “supply” factors such as growing rates of disability, increasing geographic immobility and higher incarceration rates are relevant, a 2016 White House report concluded that reductions in labour supply were far less important than reductions in labour demand in accounting for the long-run trend.39 In the future, new technologies, such as self-driving cars, 3D printers and robot-staffed factories and warehouses, may lead to a continuing decline in demand for low-skilled labour. Leading poverty experts have concluded that, because of this rising joblessness, the poverty population in the United States “is becoming a more deprived and destitute class, one that’s disconnected from the economy and unable to meet basic needs”.40 32. Earlier experiments with welfare reform, particularly the Clinton-era replacement of Aid to Families with Dependent Children with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programme, should caution present-day proponents of “welfare to work”. The impact of the 1996 welfare reform on poor, single mothers has been especially dramatic. Many took low-wage jobs after the reform and “the increase in their earnings was often cancelled out by their loss of welfare benefits, leaving their overall income relatively unchanged”.41 The situation of single mothers who could not find work deteriorated.42 As a result, there was a 748 (!) per cent increase in the number of children of single-mother families experiencing annual $2-a-day poverty between 1995 and 2012.43

Use of fraud as a smokescreen

33. Calls for welfare reform take place against a constant drumbeat of allegations of widespread fraud in the system. Government officials warned the Special Rapporteur that individuals are constantly coming up with new schemes to live high on the welfare hog, and that individual states are gaming the welfare system to cheat the federal Government. The contrast with tax reform is instructive. In the tax context, immense faith is placed in the goodwill and altruism of the corporate beneficiaries, while with welfare reform the opposite assumptions apply. The reality, of course, is that there are good and bad corporate actors and there are good and bad welfare claimants. But while funding for the Internal Revenue Service to audit wealthy taxpayers has been reduced, efforts to identify welfare fraud are being greatly intensified.44 Revelations of widespread tax avoidance by companies and high-wealth individuals draw no rebuke, only acquiescence and the maintenance of the loopholes and other arrangements designed to facilitate such arrangements. But revelations of food stamps being used for purposes other than staying alive draw howls of outrage from government officials and their media supporters.

34. Yet, despite repeated requests to officials for statistics on welfare fraud, the Special Rapporteur has received little convincing evidence. The Government collects data on “improper payments” made by federal departments and agencies, but this is a much broader concept than fraud. A 2016 Government Accountability Office report showed an error rate in 2015 of 3.66 per cent for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and 4.01 per cent for public housing and rental assistance. By contrast, the error rate for travel pay by the Department of Defense was 8 per cent.45

35. The percentage of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit dollars issued to ineligible households or to eligible households in excessive amounts was as low as 2.96 per cent in 2014.46 According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the overwhelming majority of those errors result from mistakes by different parties, rather than from dishonesty or fraud by recipients.47 Almost 60 per cent of the dollar value of overpayments by states resulted from mistakes by the government, rather than recipients.48 In 2015, 55 per cent of 723,111 investigations found no fraud.49

36. Fraud rhetoric is commonly used against persons with disabilities, large numbers of whom allegedly receive disability allowances when they could actually be working full time. When the Special Rapporteur probed into the reasons for the very high rates of persons with disabilities in West Virginia receiving benefits, government officials explained that most recipients had attained low levels of education, worked in demanding manual labour jobs and were often exposed to risks that employers were not required to guard against.

Part 2

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