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When Philip Alston decided to focus a report on the United States, in his role as the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, the goal was to spur a larger discussion. However, in the past week there has been a slow-motion volley of criticisms instead, as Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, responded negatively to Alston’s report.
Alston presented his findings officially during the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council this week, and the Trump administration finally released an official response, in addition to Haley’s reaction. Both responses defensively dispute the scale of poverty as an issue in the US and touted extremely young economic policies as an instant fix to what is carefully described in the Alston report as a decades-old issue.
The hostile exchange between Alston and Haley took place just days after the US announced it was leaving the Human Rights Council, on June 19. Part of the work of the Council is to perform visits in all UN member countries, based on their obligations under various treaties and conventions. Such visits have taken place in the US previously.
When I spoke to Alston, an Australian lawyer, two weeks ago, he said, “(n)othing would please me so much as the US government coming back with a detailed legal response, saying this is not how we understand it. I think I could match them fairly well in terms of legal analysis.”
But that level of conversation has been practically shut down in terms of the response from the US government. Haley in particular took a combative stance against the very idea of the report, claiming that it is “patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America.”
However, the Trump administration had in fact re-extended the invitation to Alston in October 2017 (presumably with Ambassador Haley’s knowledge) that the Obama presidency had originally granted in late 2016. During the fact-finding mission in December 2017, Alston spoke with government officials in every relevant department, excluding the Department of Justice, which refused to participate in his report.
While US officials acknowledge that there is a problem with poverty in the US, they seem to not want it to be talked about too loudly.
The report commences from the stark fact that 40 million Americans live in poverty, according to government statistics; 18.5 million of those people are living in extreme poverty (having an income lower than half the official poverty rate), with 5.3 million living in “Third World conditions of absolute poverty.” For his report, Alston chose to go to Alabama, California, Georgia, Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.
In recent trips as the UN special rapporteur on poverty and human rights, Alston has examined poverty as a human-rights issue in a variety of countries, including China, Mauritania, Romania and Saudi Arabia. In each country, the government’s handling of poverty is a unique portrait of what kind of social contract it holds dear. For example, in China, Alston found that poverty has been worked on effectively, but at the expense of personal choice; notably, people are forcibly moved out of areas where they can’t find employment into areas where they can.
Since the invitation to Alston to conduct his US tour was first extended by the Obama administration, I spoke to the former ambassador to the Human Rights Council, Keith Harper, who left that office in January 2017 and is now working as a lawyer in private practice. Harper said that the Trump administration’s reaction to the report “is unfortunate and un-American. It’s not in our tradition to scream and complain the way they are doing about criticisms of us.”
The report describes poverty in the US as a longstanding issue marked by ever-increasing wealth disparity, referencing successive administrations “that have determinedly rejected the idea that economic and social rights are full-fledged human rights.” Alston combined meetings with government officials with neighborhood visits and talks involving front-line groups that work to alleviate poverty. (A full list of the civil society submissions for Alston’s visit is here.)
His tour of Puerto Rico was justified, he said, by saying that its status as a self-governing territory in the US needed to be re-examined, while asserting that it was not within his domain to do so.
In Alabama, Alston spent time with groups like the Equal Justice Initiative and the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise. Getting into neighborhoods with them allowed him to see and report, for example, that “a high proportion of the population is not served by public sewerage and water supply services,” a statistic that also holds true in West Virginia.
Despite this shocking proof of a problem far greater than most Americans imagine, Nikki Haley references in a June 21, 2018 letter on the Alston report to Senator Bernie Sanders (Democrat, Vermont), two countries in Africa — Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — as more appropriate targets for such an examination. But though 90 to 95 percent of Burundi’s population lives on less than $2 a day, the whole population is still barely a quarter of the population in the US living in poverty.
Harper thinks “a report like this should be viewed as an important tool, not as a politicized attack, but that seems lost on Ambassador Haley,” he said. “Her approach seems to be playing to a domestic audience, about taking names. It’s incompetent as far as diplomacy is concerned.”
As a precedent, Harper also found the response dangerous, saying: “When I was in Geneva, I often said I will fight for the right to criticize us. I may not agree with it, but we don’t attack people because they try to criticize us. Otherwise, the next country that has severe issues with a special rapporteur report will just say that it is politicized.”
Ted Boettner, the executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a statewide, nonprofit policy research organization based in Charleston, had no trouble concurring with Alston’s decision to highlight poverty in the US. “If you go to Scandinavian countries,” he explained, “the differences are pretty clear. They have a better safety net.”
More to the point, Boettner said, “More people die here from poverty because we decide not to spend the money.”
Alston was particularly interested in this issue of how the haves treat the have-nots. “When I go to these countries,” he said of Nordic nations, “they say: ‘Of course, we want to help the poor. But we’re already struggling, we can’t do anything to help them.’ ”
But in the US, “you had this 1.5 trillion tax cut for the wealthy,” referring to the tax reform signed into law by President Trump in December 2017. “So, there’s no justification in terms of not having the money.”
Analyzing poverty’s symptoms and proposing solutions that won’t backfire in unanticipated ways is complex. But on the ground, the organizations that are trying to help people living in poverty see how stunning the contrasts between the haves and have-nots can be in the US. This disparity is a major focus of Alston’s report, along with the factors that define the divide, including race, gender, criminalization, drug law and homelessness.
Christina Alvarez is in her first year as executive director of The Gubbio Project in California. The Gubbio Project is a faith-based initiative that offers free beds and support services to San Francisco’s homeless population.
“We have this conversation frequently here,” Alvarez said in a phone call, “how do we as a society, as a city, allow extreme poverty to exist blocks from the largest tech companies in the world?” Pointing to the stunning contrast between the lives of San Francisco’s wealthiest just blocks away from people living in the streets, she asks, “How do people keep turning their eyes from their neighbors in need?”
Partly thanks to the Trump administration’s provocative responses, the report has stayed in the news since it was released on June 4. As Harper pointed out, “In some ways, their denial is a step in the conversation, not to mention to be logically expected.”
But the conversation also expanded to include the local and human-rights focused groups who provided much of the core information for Alston’s research, and there could still be potential gains in addressing poverty in the US.
Earlier this week in Geneva, where the Human Rights Council is based, Alston was joined in a panel discussion by Catherine Flowers, rural development manager of the Equal Justice Initiative and founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise; Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch; and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, an American advocacy group.
Alston publicly responded to the Trump administration’s refutations, which included critique of the statistics Alston used. There is widespread disagreement on what defines extreme poverty, and different sources have radically different numbers. But, Alston pointed out, “Denial is the worst starting point in terms of being able to address issues.”
Dr. Theoharis has recently completed her own tour of the US, shaped as 40 days of civil disobedience in 40 states. Near the end of the panel discussion, she spoke about the Poor People’s Campaign’s push for a hearing at the UN for poor people from the US “to take advantage of the fact that there is a bit of a conversation right now.”
In a quick phone conversation after the panel, Dr. Theoharis clarified what the Poor People’s Campaign wants in Geneva. “We’d like to return and bring other poor people from the US to testify about conditions that are prevalent around the country. The goal is to have a forum of a global community and an international arena. It would be a powerful tool that the Poor People’s Campaign could use.”
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