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U.N.'s poverty monitor says U.S. is 'like the kid who takes his football and goes home'

U.N.'s poverty monitor says U.S. is 'like the kid who takes his football and goes home'
U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston tours Los Angeles' skid row with General Dogon on Dec. 5. (Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

The U.N. monitor of extreme poverty stepped up his criticism of the Trump administration Friday, accusing the United States of failing to engage in promoting human rights and “behaving like the kid who takes his football and goes home.”

“In any country, but particularly a wealthy one, the persistence over a very long period of time of 40 million people living in poverty must be a cause for concern,” U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston said as he presented his report on American poverty to a packed chamber of the world body’s Human Rights Council in Geneva.

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No U.S. diplomat attended the event to formally respond.

Alston spoke a day after the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, blasted Alston’s report as “misleading and politically motivated.” On Tuesday, she announced the United States was pulling out of the Human Rights Council, which she condemned as “a cesspool of political bias.”

As Alston rebuked the U.S. government for refusing to address problems in its own backyard, he said he had seen literal cesspools in rural Alabama.

“I witnessed raw sewage poured into the gardens of people who could never afford to pay $30,000 for their own septic systems,” he said as he addressed delegates from 46 nations. “Cesspools need to be cleaned up, and governments need to act.”

In a letter to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), one of 20 members of Congress who urged the Trump administration to present Congress with a national plan to reduce poverty, Haley on Thursday questioned the very idea that the U.N. Human Rights Council should investigate poverty in the United States.

“It is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America," Haley wrote. “In our country, the President, Members of Congress, Governors, Mayors, and City Council members actively engage on poverty issues every day. Compare that to the many countries around the world, whose governments knowingly abuse human rights and cause pain and suffering.”

Alston, who planned his tour of the United States before Trump was elected, published his report June 1 after visiting California, Alabama, Puerto Rico and West Virginia at the end of last year.

While he contended that America’s overall policy response to poverty has been “neglectful at best” over the last five decades, he singled out the Trump administration for a “dramatic change of direction,” including policies “deliberately designed” to remove basic welfare protections for the poor.

With tension building between U.S. officials and the United Nations, the native Australian and law professor at New York University dismissed Haley’s suggestion that the Human Rights Council was focusing on America for political reasons.

He also pushed back against Haley’s suggestion that the U.S. government was above criticism.

“When one of the world's wealthiest countries does very little about the fact that 40 million of its citizens live in poverty, it is entirely appropriate for the reasons to be scrutinized,” Alston said.

In a vast meeting room filled with the delegates of nations such as Cuba and Pakistan, he ran through a litany of what he said were U.S. failings.

The U.S. healthcare system spends eight times as much to achieve the same life expectancy as in Chile and Costa Rica, he said. African American maternal mortality rates are almost double those in Thailand. According to recent data from the World Health Organization, he said, babies born in China today will live longer than babies born in the United States.

“If this council stands for anything, it is the principle of accountability,” he said. “The United States’ position, expressed by Ambassador Haley, seems to be that this council should do far more to hold certain states to account, but that it should exempt the United States and its key allies from any such accountability.”

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In her letter Thursday, Haley touted the United States’ lowest unemployment rate in decades, and said the administration would continue to “pursue the pro-economic growth policies that are helping so many people find work.”

While Alston acknowledged that the U.S. economy is booming, he pointed out that millions of Americans struggle to survive on low wages and part-time jobs.

“The question is who is benefiting?” he said. “Expanding employment has created many jobs with no security, no healthcare, and often with below-subsistence wages. The benefits of economic growth are going overwhelmingly to the wealthy.”

Alston accused the Trump administration of pursuing welfare policies that deprived more Americans of health insurance, stigmatized those receiving government benefits, and imposed stricter requirements on social safety net protections, such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Just the day before Alston gave his presentation, he noted, the House of Representatives passed a controversial Farm Bill that would impose stricter work requirements on up to 7 million Americans who receive food stamps.

“The American dream of mobility is turning into the American illusion,” he said, “in which the rich get ever richer, and the middle classes don’t move.”

With the Trump administration declining to respond to Alston in Geneva, some advocates are pressuring state and local leaders to step up.

On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California wrote a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount), urging them to work together to address extreme poverty in California.

One out of five California residents is poor, according to the Census Bureau's Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes into account housing, food and medical expenses, and includes noncash government benefits as a form of income.

“As leaders of a state with the highest poverty rate in our nation, these violations of human rights principles are your responsibility to address,” wrote Clarissa Woo Hermosillo, the ACLU’s director of economic justice.

“Extreme poverty and rampant homelessness are not choices that the richest state in the richest nation in history needs to continue making,” she added. “Implementing these recommendations will go far in making sure — even when our federal government continues to fail — our state guarantees economic justice and basic human rights to all.

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Alston, who toured Los Angeles’ skid row in December, notes in his report that L.A. failed to meet the minimum sanitation standards for its homeless that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees sets for refugee camps in Syria.

Officials in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, Alston argues in his report, have exacerbated problems for the homeless with minor infraction notices that lead to warrants, unpayable fines and the stigma of a criminal conviction that can make it harder to find jobs and housing.

“Homelessness on this scale is far from inevitable and reflects political choices to see the solution as law enforcement rather than adequate and accessible low-cost housing, medical treatment, psychological counseling and job training,” Alston wrote.

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