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WASSERMAN: Poverty investigation shows need for reform

Opinions Column: A Healthy Dose of Justice

In a column centered around the theme of health inequity, both globally and at home here in the United States, I plan what to write on a bi-weekly basis by following the news coverage in the last few days. But, one story caught my attention in early December, and despite its lack of attention in the media or urgency in terms of policy deadlines, it is one that is truly haunting and has stayed with me since the first mention I heard of it.

In early December 2017, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston from Australia, visited the United States to conduct a UN investigation of the conditions of poverty in Alabama, California, West Virginia, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur is an independent expert that conducts research and analysis, visits countries and reports on their conditions and sends letters to governments about violations of human rights within their countries. With the cooperation of President Donald J. Trump's administration, Alston requested his visit in light of the directional changes the new presidency brought in regard to tax cuts and welfare reforms. His report cites the technological innovation and wealth of the United States but notes that neither the innovation nor the wealth is being harnessed to bring the 40 million people living in poverty to a higher state of well-being.

Throughout Alston’s report, a litany of startling statistics that crush the narrative of American exceptionalism are presented. For example, 12 million Americans are living with a neglected tropical disease like hookworm. Healthcare expenditure per capita is higher than any other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nation, but by 2015, the U.S. had fewer doctors and hospital beds per person than the OECD average. People in the United States can expect to live shorter and less healthy lives than those living in other rich democracies. The U.S. lags behind other developed countries in access to water and sanitation, ranked at No. 36 on the Environmental Performance Index. The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. More than 20 percent of children live in poverty in the U.S. 

Though the statistics are shocking, the most damning part of Alston’s report is the commentary he offers on U.S. history and ideas about social responsibility. Since the advent of the UN, the U.S. has had an ambivalent track record of being the voice of human rights, while neglecting to ratify key documents like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Alston said, “In practice, the United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable healthcare or growing up in a context of total deprivation.” He mentions the caricatured narratives of the poor as wasteful scammers that drive public policy debate, with the idolization of the wealthy as dutiful and patriotic. But the reality that Alston describes, is one in which many of the wealthiest Americans do not pay their fair share of taxes and only make money through speculation rather than through contributing to the economy, and one in which many of the poor are not scammers, but rather people who had been born into poverty or forced there by social factors beyond their control.

In September 2017, 1 in 8 Americans was living in poverty, with half of them living on a family income one-half below the poverty threshold, as defined by the United States Census Bureau. In a wealthy country like America, this is not an unavoidable phenomenon, but rather a social fact that results from the political choices made by those in power. Alston notes multiple problems with existing policies, including rampant disenfranchisement of voters among communities of color, an illusory focus on employment as a means of poverty reduction, shortcomings in basic social protections, a reliance on using the criminalization of conditions instead of fixing them, general demonization of the poor and privatization of government responsibilities as an ideal solution, among others. With the current discourse on tax policy, healthcare policy, welfare policy and a lack of consideration for how the expansion of technology affects the poor, it should be no surprise that these are the social conditions that the United States faces today. But Alston’s report holds a figurative mirror to our repugnant American “The Picture of Dorian Gray," and if our leaders do not take heed of his warnings, then we deserve the inevitable downfall that we are headed toward.

Jake Wasserman is a Bloustein School senior majoring in public health with a minor in cognitive science. His column, “A Healthy Dose of Justice,” runs every alternate Tuesday.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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