A few days ago, a neighbor shared a blog post by a friend of hers.
The post referenced a recent report by the United Nations, accusing the Trump Administration of intentionally making life more difficult for poor Americans while taking steps to enrich the already privileged. I had seen an article on the report in the Guardian, but so far as I–and the author of this blog– know, that was the only news source that addressed it.
Were it not for the source, it would hardly be news to learn that the United States can’t take care of its most needy—that it may be the richest country, but it is also increasingly, appallingly, unequal in how its wealth and opportunities are shared. When the various dimensions of human security are examined, critics have long noted that the US falls short, whether in treatment of children, poverty rates, income gaps between rich and poor, or even life expectancy. All this has been amply documented in annual reports of the United Nations Development Programme (http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/2016_human_development_report.pdf), which I’ve discussed in previous blogs (#9 for example).
But now comes an update from a distinguished international legal scholar who is the United Nations special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights. Philip Alston visited several deep pockets of poverty, from Los Angeles to West Virginia and Detroit to Puerto Rico, at the end of 2017. His report (UN General Assembly Doc. A/HRC/38/33/Add.1, May 4, 2018) is a devastating indictment of the government that underscores the large and growing contradictions between the American Dream and reality. Alston told The Guardian that Trump’s policies amount to “ a systematic attack on America’s welfare program that is undermining the social safety net for those who can’t cope on their own. Once you start removing any sense of government commitment, you quickly move into cruelty.”
The report acknowledges that previous administrations haven’t distinguished themselves by their concern for these inequities, but quotes Alston to the effect that the Trump Administration has “deliberately targeted the most vulnerable in society, kicking away every ladder of social wellbeing in order to serve Trump’s rich supporters and his alt-right agenda”.
In other words, it’s not that this government can’t take care of the poor. It won’t. It has no interest in doing so.
The blogger, Mel Gurtov, provides examples of the measures that Alston identified as particularly onerous to the most vulnerable:
• Debasing civil society: Supporting limits on voting rights with specious arguments about voter fraud and “covert disenfranchisement” such as gerrymandering and various ID requirements.
• Giving huge tax breaks to millionaires and big corporations while about 40 million people live below the poverty line—among them, 23.8 million considered in extreme or absolute poverty. The richest 1 percent of Americans now account for 20 percent of national income, double the percentage in 1980. “The proposed tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world,” says Alston in a separate statement (www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22533).
• Putting new limits on basic anti-poverty measures such as work requirements for welfare, food stamps, subsidized housing, health insurance, and veterans’ benefits.
• Limiting opportunity: “The United States now has one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility of any of the rich countries. . . . 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.”
• Promoting racist stereotypes that seek to stigmatize non-whites as being mainly poor, lazy, and unworthy of uplifting.
• Tolerating the highest rate of infant mortality, the highest rate of youth poverty, and the highest income inequality among all rich countries.*
• Treating Puerto Rico as a colony, and imposing fiscal discipline that fails to take into account people’s need of social protection. (The mayor of San Juan says it all: Trump’s , total neglect has to be called [out]. The United Nations says that when people are denied the right to access to basic human services — like electric power, like water, like food, like appropriate medical care — that it is a violation of human rights.”)
We’ve gone from a war on poverty to a war on the impoverished.
We’ve become a country without compassion, where the shameless and greedy eat bon bons and watch the poor scramble for crumbs. Our cruelty, together with the President’s erratic and embarrassingly ignorant behavior, has squandered America’s claim to any vestige of continued moral authority.
How long can this go on before it becomes irreversible?