The Trump administration and its Republican allies in Congress have embarked on a mission to reduce federal support for the poor. They are seeking to impose callous, untested work requirements on Medicaid and expand them on food stamps and related programs. The administration wants to hike rents on public housing tenants, who are among the neediest of the needy. At the very end of last year, Trump signed an ill-considered tax cut bill that benefits corporations and the wealthy while driving the budget deficit sky high and adding a trillion dollars to the national debt over the next decade. House Republicans are now proposing to rein in those deficits by cutting safety-net and domestic programs. It is, in effect, a multi-generational, reverse-Robin Hood transfer of wealth that reflects the hardening of the American heart.
Yes, there are still acts of generosity, such as when Los Angeles voters taxed themselves to raise millions for housing and services for the homeless. But such moves are local outliers. At the national level, the harshness comes through in our ever-meaner policies on poverty, in the undermining of the Affordable Care Act, in our “zero tolerance” approach to immigration enforcement — with parents packed off to detention centers to await misdemeanor prosecution for entering the country illegally while their kids are either incarcerated with them or caged separately or shunted off to foster families and extended family members.
In a damning report filed Friday, Philip Alston, the special rapporteur on extreme poverty for the United Nations, describes the U.S. as a world leader in two dissonant ways: in wealth and in poverty, when compared with other developed democracies. Some 5.3 million people in the U.S. “live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty,” wrote Alston, who is also a professor at the New York University School of Law.
The youth poverty rate and the infant mortality rate in the U.S. are among the worst among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “Its citizens live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies,” Alston said. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate and one of the lowest voter-registration rates, again disproportionately among the poor. It also has one of the worst rates for intergenerational social mobility, meaning that our poor tend to stay poor despite decades of federal programs aimed at trying to give them some financial breathing room.
So why is that? “The persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power,” Alston wrote. “With political will, it could readily be eliminated.” That seems a bit overly optimistic; ending poverty is a wonderful goal, but incredibly difficult to achieve. Especially in a dysfunctional political system in which power accrues to the wealthy and the connected. Poverty and economic inequality are complex issues comprising many shifting parts. Conservatives like to argue that the persistence of poverty proves that anti-poverty programs from the Lyndon Johnson-era Great Society on have failed. That’s a too-convenient conclusion; it can also be argued that such programs helped millions of people avoid falling even deeper into poverty, and that a more robust set of programs and spending could improve the lives of millions more.
Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, said last week that “it is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America.”
There are obstacles to creating a government that cares. For one thing, polls suggest that most Americans disagree with the notion that helping the poor is the government’s responsibility. An even greater number believe the government is doing a bad job of it. A large portion of America believes the poor need to do more to help themselves.
Yet in a society with such a high cost of living and struggling schools and expensive colleges and a growing wealth gap, the climb out of poverty is steep and beyond the abilities of many individuals to handle on their own. It’s shameful that a nation as wealthy as this one is so willing to leave so many of its people in such desperate straits. That’s a moral failure.