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.