UN report on U.S. poverty right on target

On June 19, U.S. officials announced their intention to withdraw the country from the United Nations Human Rights Council. This was not surprising, given that the Trump administration has made clear its dissatisfaction with the 47-member body. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has told member countries that they must stop focusing solely on Israel for condemnation. She and other administration officials say member countries have human rights abuses of their own that need attention.

Member states include Burundi, Saudi Arabia, the Democratic Republican of the Congo, China and Venezuela, as well as such ostensible U.S. allies as the Philippines, Egypt, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Mexico and Spain. The George W. Bush administration kept the United States off the council, but the Obama administration reversed this in 2009 and sought membership, thinking it could help reform the council's excesses from within.

Many have opined that the Trump administration chose this time to leave the council because of the uproar over the separation of children from their undocumented immigrant and refugee parents as they crossed the border between Mexico and the United States. No doubt this is true, but another factor may well be a report on poverty in the U.S. that the U.N. Human Rights Council published in May.

In December 2017, an academic from Australia, Philip Alston, visited the United States, including Puerto Rico, for two weeks on behalf of the United Nations. As Special Rapporteur, his charge from the Human Rights Council of the world body was to report on extreme poverty and human rights. In his report, Alston relies heavily on U.S. government statistics and statistics from respected non-governmental agencies and research. A reporter, Ed Pilkington, from The Guardian accompanied Alston on his travels and the resulting article is an invaluable companion piece.

Alston visits skid row in Los Angeles, where a resident of the streets tells him about "the violence of looking away" she encounters. In Lowndes County, Alabama, "thousands of people continue to live among open sewers of the sort normally associated with the developing world." This has led to what The Guardian calls "an ongoing epidemic of hookworm," an intestinal parasite transmitted through human waste. It was thought to have been eliminated from the U.S. a long time ago, though it is still found in Africa and South Asia.

In Puerto Rico, Alston speaks with residents who live near a 70-foot-high mound of toxic coal ash generated by a power plant owned by a corporation from Virginia. They suffer numerous health problems related to the ash. Alston notes that 70 percent of the dumping sites in the United States are in low-income communities. The response from the Trump administration: "In March 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new rule that would significantly undermine existing inadequate protections against coal ash disposal."

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, recently asked Ambassador Haley to comment on Alston's report. "It is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America," Haley wrote to Sanders on June 21. "The Special Rapporteur wasted the UN's time and resources, deflecting attention from the world's worst human rights abusers and focusing instead on the wealthiest and freest country in the world."

Sen. Sanders answered the same day. "You are certainly right in suggesting that poverty in many countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi is far worse than it is in the United States. But what is important to note about poverty in America is that it takes place in the richest county in the history of the world and at a time when wealth and income inequality is worse than at any time since the 1920s," he wrote to the ambassador. "As it happens, I personally believe that it is totally appropriate for the UN Special Rapporteur to focus on poverty in the United States."

In fact, despite low unemployment, 40 million people still live in poverty, more than 30 million have no health insurance, over half of older workers have no retirement savings, 140 million Americans are struggling to pay for basic living expenses, 40 percent of Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency and millions of Americans are leaving school deeply in debt, the senator pointed out. Additionally, more than 13 million American children live in poverty, more than 1 in 5 homeless individuals are children and the United States has the highest youth poverty rate and infant mortality rate among comparable nations.

We have read it carefully. Professor Alston's report for the UN Human Rights Council on extreme poverty in the United States is, as Sen. Sanders writes, a totally appropriate topic of focus. It paints an accurate and depressing picture that rings true. Nothing ridiculous about it.


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