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.
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.”
Harsh language to be sure, but not a novel observation. A good deal of the critique applies to previous US administrations. Let’s remember that the “war on poverty” began in 1964! What makes Alston’s report stand out is his contention 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. So it’s not just that this government can’t take care of the poor; it won’t.
Here are a few items from Alston’s indictment that strike me as being particularly onerous—that is, criminal in intent and consequences.
• 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.
• 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.”)
Except for The Guardian, I don’t believe any major news outlet has reported on Alston’s work. Only a few liberal politicians have bothered to comment. We evidently are so steeped in the mythology of exceptionalism that we refuse to believe we’re in decline in the most important measure of national security, namely, human security. We thus take comfort in being number one in military spending and the number of billionaires while also believing we can turn away from global affairs that affect every American: environmental protection, immigration reform, trade equity, and adherence to UN human-rights conventions.
(Also relevant to the assault on low-income people and racism is a report of the World Justice Project, a multidisciplinary US organization devoted to advancing the rule of law. Its latest report [2017-2018] shows that on two components of a lawful society—criminal justice and civil justice—the US lags well behind Germany and other Western European peers and ranks only 19th overall out of 113 countries surveyed. Civil justice includes the categories of accessibility and affordability, and no discrimination; the US rank here is particularly low. Likewise under criminal justice, the US scores are very low compared with Europe for no discrimination and due process of law.)
The Alston report’s findings are an indictment of the Trump administration and should become an article of impeachment. In terms of ethics and democracy, Trump’s actions may be more consequential than his currying favor with the Russians—not just because they debase and violate so many of our citizens, but also because they make a mockery of traditional (and worthy) American values such as lawfulness, community, and tolerance—values that once upon a time commanded international respect.
This president has put himself and his cronies first and the rest of the country last. He has behaved in the manner of many Third World dictators: enriching his inner circle, paying off loyalists, giving the military everything it wants, attacking the key institutions of democracy and the rule of law, and marginalizing the masses. He must be confronted, and his authoritarianism must be decisively rejected.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.