Q&A: U.N.’s poverty and human rights special rapporteur finds U.S. policies reward wealthy, punish poor

U.N. special rapporteur Philip Alston gets a tour of skid row in downtown Los Angeles with General Dogon on Dec. 5, 2017.
(Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)
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Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, published a damning report this week on poverty in the United States, condemning President Trump’s administration for exacerbating the problem of inequality by rewarding the rich and punishing the poor.

“The American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion,” Alston states in the report. “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.”

Alston, who toured the United States at the end of last year, condemned the “dramatic change of direction” in U.S. policies as the Trump administration pursues high tax breaks for the rich and slashes welfare benefits for the poor.

A native Australian and law professor at New York University, Alston spoke with The Times this week about his report, which he will present on June 21 to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in Geneva. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In your four years as a special rapporteur for the U.N., you have reported from countries as diverse as Haiti, China and Ghana. Did you plan to set your sights on the U.S. when you took on the role?

No, it wasn’t something that I expected to do, initially. My assumption was that poverty problems were more severe in many other countries. But then gradually, it became apparent to me that, in fact, the United States, which is a land of vast differences or inconsistencies, actually combined all of the wealth and riches that we see in some areas with stunning poverty in other areas.

In some ways, it was captured very nicely in Los Angeles by the contrast between the central business district and skid row. From skid row, you see the wealth, the opulence which is so close by, but in skid row itself, you’ve got this really large community of completely deprived people, where not even toilets were provided. The streets stank of urine and despair because the government is not prepared to devote serious resources to addressing the problem.

You spent 12 days traveling across the United States, exploring poverty in states as diverse as California and Alabama. What did you see?

I started off in California, where the emphasis was on homelessness. I then flew over to Alabama, where the focus was on racial differences and the failure to provide even basic services, like sanitation, in areas that were very close to large cities. What was shocking was that even basic sewage facilities are not provided, and so I saw open sewage flowing into back gardens. And that is just something you sort of expect in a low-income developing country, but you don’t expect it in the United States.

I then went to Puerto Rico, which would definitely be the poorest state in the union if it were a state. The situation was very grim, even before Hurricane Maria, but obviously exacerbated greatly after it. I’m told I’m not supposed to use the term, but certainly, the conditions were very much Third World. I met people who were living without any real access to the basic services that we’ve come to expect. Government is just not an actor. There’s no provision of social protections at all.

I went to West Virginia, one of the states that did not take the Medicaid expansion, where they have relatively low rates of health insurance, and I saw the extent to which very few government services are provided for people generally — not just health, but access to the internet and so on. As was explained to me by government officials, if we propose any additional spending in the budget, it’s completely out of the question. It’s not going to be accepted by the Legislature.

Your visit to the U.S. came at a time when, as you put in your report, America is undergoing a “dramatic change in direction.” What policies are Trump’s administration pursuing that most threaten poor Americans?

The signature effort by the administration is to insist that people who are receiving most of the different types of benefits are actually capable of working and should be doing so. What you’ve got is a pretty carefully coordinated effort coming, I understand, from the Office of Management and Budget to attach ever more demanding work or volunteer or education requirements to different benefits. That’s starting to affect Medicaid. It’s starting to affect government housing subsidies. And it’s starting to affect food stamps.

In all of those cases there are different requirements, which either the federal government or state governments have been enabled to impose, which will in each case drive some millions of people off the relevant benefit rolls. The government says, “Ah, but there’s full employment and so all of these people could work if they want to.” Already, a large number of people are working, but in fact that doesn’t bring them enough income to survive, and so they still need additional food stamps, they still need access to Medicaid. Simply telling them they have to work or volunteer for up to 30 hours a week is not going to change any of that.

Do you think the Trump administration is deliberately exacerbating inequality?

There are two very prominent policy initiatives: the tax cuts, which make the wealthy wealthier, but also cut government budgets for the future and the cutbacks on welfare benefits. The administration is now pushing ahead to reduce benefits, assuming that this is going to save a lot of money, which in turn will fund the tax cuts. So my sense is that these are two of the major priorities of the administration [and] when they’re put together, it does indeed seem to be a very deliberate attempt to punish the poor.

I think the assumption is that poor people are, by definition, lazy and undeserving and the appropriate response of government is to punish them and to provide as little as possible. That’s what’s driving most of government policy on this issue.

Poverty is not a new problem for the United States. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his “war on poverty” from Appalachia. Yet as you state in your report, over the last five decades, the overall policy response has been “neglectful at best.” Why has the U.S. been able to make such little headway?

There’s been a systematic effort by conservatives to stigmatize and delegitimize what Americans call welfare — the notion that anyone who is receiving money from the government is shameful and offensive. Yet the rich receive vastly more money from the government, and that’s not considered shameful. I have a mortgage on a house in the United States, and I get immense tax benefits from that, probably in excess of anything I would get if I were on welfare. But that’s not shameful; that’s considered somehow to be my entitlement.

But someone who is extremely sick, or unemployed or in other ways in difficulty gets basic benefits or assistance from the government, it is not considered to be their right or their entitlement as it would be in Europe. I think that’s a very long-term campaign to portray those two different forms of government assistance in a totally different light, and that leads to the discrediting of the very idea of relying upon government assistance.

How does inequality in the United States compare to other countries across the world?

The United States has the highest inequality of the richest nations. It has the highest incarceration rate by far. It has among the highest child mortality rates. It has the highest youth poverty rate. It has one of the lowest levels of voter registration in the rich countries. In essence, it scores extremely poorly on almost all of the comparative measures when compared with other developed states.

I visited China on one of these missions about a year ago and what I found was a country that has huge problems in terms of human rights, but in terms of extreme poverty, has made an absolutely concerted and genuine attempt to eliminate poverty and has succeeded to an important extent. By 2020, they will in fact have no one living in extreme poverty, unlike the United States.

While I don’t for a minute want to suggest that the political system [in China] is desirable or even compatible with democratic standards, I would very much welcome an American government that shows a determination to lift everyone out of extreme poverty. I think that’s what politics should be all about, and it’s not happening in the United States.

What impact will America’s current policies have on society as a whole?

It is going to greatly exacerbate extreme poverty rates. That means you’ve got an ever larger section of people that are alienated, who don’t feel the system or the government is doing anything for them. That, in turn, begins to undermine support for democracy because people don’t see any value in voting, they don’t see any attempt to ensure basic conditions of well-being.

The United States is storing up immense problems for itself. It’s extremely shortsighted. Basically, you’re going to see great rejoicing on the part of the wealthy — and we’re not just talking about the 1%, we’re talking about the 20% — who are going to do increasingly well and gain increasingly more of the wealth of society. But it’s not sustainable politically. The upheavals that we’ve seen with the election of President Trump, with the increasingly large-scale rejection of the key institutions of society, I think will only become more extreme as the wealth differentials become ever greater. We are building a society where wealth and privilege will dominate everything, where you will start to move toward the privatization of ever more government services.

What role can technology play in reducing or exacerbating inequality?

Technology has immense potential. It can do as much good as it can do harm. The problem is that most of the technological developments are largely technologies of control, technologies that assume we will be able to target ever more narrowly the deserving and identify ever more precisely the undeserving, rather than trying to really address the problems that afflict a great many people in American society.

In the report, I talk about the use of algorithms to identify either the most desirable recipients of housing assistance, or the people who should be given bail as opposed to being kept in prison. To a large extent, those algorithms are just reproducing the existing data, which are often very racist. That the people who should be given bail look like me: They are old, they are male, they are white. We’re not trying to work out more creatively the sort of circumstances under which poorer people are actually likely to skip bail and be a risk. I don’t think research is being put into it because who cares if lots of poor people are in prison? That’s not the issue. What your basic concern is will determine where you put your resources.

What kind of impact, ultimately, do you expect your report will have?

The U.N. and experts like me have no power to force any government to do anything. All we can do is draw attention to it and hope that it will garner more domestic notice and encourage those who are trying to bring about change.

I don’t expect the Trump administration to stand up and say, “Gosh, we hadn’t realized this. We got it wrong.”

The United States is a proud nation. I don’t think that it will particularly appreciate being given such a poor report card before the international community. But I would very much like it if the U.S., when I present the report on June 21 to the Human Rights Council, would come out and try to defend its policies. I think that would be a very helpful step in getting serious debate going.

Jarvie is a special correspondent.