Let the Trump administration tell it, and there are virtually no people living in extreme poverty in the United States. In a recent rebuke to a United Nations report on American poverty, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s office stated that a recent study of Americans making less than $4 a day “implies that there are only approximately 250,000 persons in ‘extreme poverty’ circumstances.” Their estimate served to underscore the administration’s main objection to the report. In the richest country to ever exist, why study poverty at all?
In his May 4 report, UN special rapporteur Philip G. Alston outlined his reasons. “The United States is a land of stark contrasts,” Alston wrote. “Its immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live.” His report, informed by visits from places as disparate as Alabama’s Black Belt to Puerto Rico’s Caribbean beaches, defies the common narrative that the country has defeated the kinds of abject poverty that are often considered problems of the developing world. The report also defies the Trump administration, in the process highlighting the tension between its claim that America has defeated deep poverty—and its preference for policies that will push more people into deep poverty.
In the analysis, delivered to the Human Rights Council after weeks of stakeholder meetings across states and a review of contemporary research, Alston manages to sprawl considerably, even given a svelte 20-page limit. In tugging on the thread of American poverty, he treads toward the grand systemic analyses of late that have endeavored to understand how poverty, class, and racial disparities are institutionalized across society. Identifying the problem, the UN document notes: “About 40 million [Americans] live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty.”
Alston finds a number of different factors at play here. He addresses the “structural racism that keeps a large percentage of non-Whites in poverty and near poverty,” referring to enduring housing discrimination, and large racial disparities in wages. He focuses on the increasing distance between the wealth of the rich and poor in the country, and the fact that while a quarter of all the world’s billionaires are American, the country also has the highest child poverty rate among OECD countries, the bloc of the most advanced economies in the world. The report highlights the role of mounting health problems for the poor, as well as the role of the criminal-justice system, in maintaining and creating poverty. There are few sectors of federal government that Alston’s review doesn’t criticize sharply.
That sharp criticism contributed to a growing rift between the UN—particularly the Human Rights Council—and the United States. Before the reported withdrawal of the United States from the council, which has frequently criticized Israel and has also been recently critical of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” family disintegration policy along the U.S. border, Alston’s May report deepened the rift that would soon become unbridgeable.
Haley dismissed the report, disputing methodology that the United States government says dramatically overstates the extent of deep poverty and the role of public assistance in boosting purchasing power, instead opting for its own number of 250,000 people who subsist on $4 a day or less—even after accounting for assistance. In its written statement to the Human Rights Council, the U.S. Mission to the UN said that “accusations that the United States shows ‘contempt and hatred’ for the poor, including accusations of a criminal justice system designed to keep low income persons in poverty while generating public revenue, are inaccurate, inflammatory, and irresponsible.” Haley also said that it “is patently ridiculous for the UN to examine poverty in America,” and called the report “politically motivated.”
On that last point, Haley is almost certainly correct. The special rapporteur delivered what is unquestionably a barbed analysis of American poverty and anti-poverty policy. Alston zeroes in on President Trump’s 2017 tax bill—which provides favorable tax cuts for wealthy and upper-middle class Americans—as a reform that “will worsen this situation and ensure that the United States remains the most unequal society in the developed world.” Among his recommendations are suggestions to “decriminalize poverty” by reducing fines and fees for low-level crimes, roll back mass incarceration, recognize a right to health care, redistribute wealth to the lower reaches through progressive tax policy, and recognize Puerto Rico’s right to either become a state or declare itself independent. These solutions are deeply ideological by nature, tied to a number of progressive critiques of capitalism and white supremacy over the years.
Yet, the debate over poverty, including the bounds of how acceptable its presence is in American society, is necessarily partisan, and as currently constituted, the Trump doctrine has little to add to any serious conversation on poverty reduction.
Indeed, if it must be judged solely by its results, Trumpian policy is designed to increase the ranks of the impoverished, and to hasten the declining economic prospects of people at the margins in America. The president wants to obliterate the Affordable Care Act and its Medicaid expansion, which studies indicate have saved thousands of people from bankruptcy. In that Medicaid program and in other means-tested welfare programs, the administration has rolled out work requirements and a growing list of restrictions that will only serve to kick people off assistance, and will create a new subclass of even poorer people who are ineligible for public assistance. The White House has also proposed a government reshuffle that experts believe will make means-tested programs like food stamps more vulnerable to cuts, and has rolled out a proposed budget that does that cutting. And from its tax policy to its endorsement of a plan to hike rental rates of people living in public housing, the Trump administration has espoused a poverty plan that simply rejects that the government has a major role in reducing poverty.
Interestingly, Haley’s mission would have the world believe that last part is not so, and that’s instructive. “The U.S. funds large public assistance programs designed to help low-income Americans, including $565.5 billion for Medicaid, $63 billion for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and $42.5 billion for housing assistance programs,” the mission wrote the United Nations. “In fact, more than $1 trillion dollars in means-tested benefits are provided to the poor annually by federal and state governments.” What goes unmentioned, of course, is that one of the only coherent policies of the administration from early 2017 to now has been across-the-board slashes to each of those programs.
Trump officials argue that the country has defeated most of the scourge of poverty, through a concerted effort and trillions of dollars of federal spending over decades. But they also argue that with the task complete, the days of watchful vigilance and duty to alleviate poverty are done. Even if confronted with swelling masses of meal-skipping people living in threadbare conditions, poverty can always be redefined, those ranks reduced by rhetorical and methodological gimmicks until they no longer trouble the conscience.