Philip Alston is a professor at New York University School of Law, and co-Chair of the law school’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. He is also a UN special rapporteur and a leading expert on global poverty.
Mr. Alston spent 15 days visiting the United States in order to assess the wealth gap and American poverty in general. His observational journey took him from California to Alabama, and even Puerto Rico. His findings are incredibly disturbing and though his full report will not be available until 2018, the draft that has been released is absolutely savage — particularly as it relates to President Trump and the Republican party. Philip Alston said:
“The American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion, as the United States now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries.”
“American exceptionalism was a constant theme in my conversations. But instead of realising its founders’ admirable commitments, today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights.”
These are things that we, as Americans, know to be true. But it is equal parts stunning and shameful to have an otherwise objective outsider arrive at such bleak conclusions about our country. While Mr. Alston teaches in New York, he is originally from Australia, so it follows that he wouldn’t have spent much time in Alabama. That is where he says he saw conditions he said he had never previously witnessed in the developed world.
He reports that while visiting Butler and Lowndes counties he was shown families whose homes had no proper sewage system, who had been forced to create their own their own dubious waste management systems using basic PVC piping. Alston was also taken aback by the spread of arcane disease and infection. He made particular mention of hookworm in Lowndes County. To be clear, these are cases of humans — not pets or other wildlife — suffering from hookworm. Before this year, it was thought that instances of hookworm had been eradicated from this country more than a century ago.
Mr. Alston cited statistics from the Census Bureau in September 2017 which indicated more than 40 million people were living in poverty, while 18. million people, were living in so-called “deep poverty,” which means that their reported household income is below half of the poverty threshold. He said the tax and welfare reforms being floated by Trump and Republican leadership in Congress would only worsen the problem and if they are instituted in current form they are likely to have “devastating consequences” for the poorest 20 percent of Americans. Alston says that such initiatives are turning the United States into the “World Champion of Extreme Inequality.”
Henry David Thoreau would argue that all Americans should cringe about this, regardless of whether we voted for the Dickensian villains who seem determined to increase the wealth gap. You are right to feel ashamed every time Alston points out that American poverty is singular among the “first world” or “developed world.”
This is why voting should cease being considered a “right” or “privilege” and start being considered a fundamental civic duty, particularly as so many of the deeply impoverished happen to also be disenfranchised voters.
Please vote as often as possible. Please protest or counter-protest pursuant to your passions whenever plausible. Please do not ever throw your vote away on a third party candidate because of the “broken two party system” or a mantra of greater or lesser eye-roll inducement.
You are free to do so. It is your right, but keep in mind that it is also the height of privilege.