The Persistence of Extreme Poverty in the US: Recent Findings of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

The Persistence of Extreme Poverty in the US: Recent Findings of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

“In Alabama, I saw various houses in rural areas that were surrounded by cesspools of sewage that flowed out of broken or non-existent septic systems. The State Health Department had no idea of how many households exist in these conditions, despite the grave health consequences.”[1]  “I saw people who had lost all of their teeth because adult dental care is not covered by the vast majority of programs available to the very poor […].”[2] These are only a few examples of the intolerable living conditions of the extremely poor in the US that the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Professor  Philip Alston, witnessed first-hand during his recent visit to that country. The visit, which took place last December at the invitation of the Federal government, was conducted with the aim “to look at whether the persistence of extreme poverty in America undermines the enjoyment of human rights by its citizens.”[3]

Most of the Rapporteur’s findings are detailed in the long statement issued upon completion of the on-site mission on December 15, 2017.  The statement is an exceptionally persuasive attempt to signal the urgent need to introduce drastic cultural, legal and policy changes to the way in which the US tackles poverty and extreme poverty.  The statement is remarkable in at least three respects.

To being with, the statement contains an unequivocal and unapologetic critique of a notion of poverty qua predicament that one brings upon herself/himself and affront to senses and neighborhoods.[4] Equally important, the statement sheds light on the ethnicity of poverty in the US and its magnitude.  On these premises, the Rapporteur reminds us that poverty is a complex and complicated reality.  Simplistic narrative by some US politicians and media depicting the poor as “wasters, losers, and scammers”[5] for whom the American dream is just around the corner “if only they work hard enough”[6] are in stark contrast with the situation of the poor with whom the Rapporteur met. These persons were “overwhelmingly”[7] either persons who were born in poverty or persons who had become poor as a result of factors that were beyond their control including: disability, divorce, family breakdown, illness, old age, wages that do not provide a decent living, and discrimination in access to employment. As to the ethnic dimension of poverty, the Rapporteur is keen to stress that poverty in the US affects Black and Hispanic communities as well as Asian and White persons.  In this last regard he points out that “there are 8 million more poor Whites than there are Blacks.”[8]  As of 2017 poverty affects 40 million people and half of them, 18.5 million, live in extreme poverty “with reported family income below one-half of the poverty threshold.”[9]

Second, the statement hands down an indictment of competent authorities’ approach to the eradication of poverty.  The Rapporteur emphasizes that the persistence of extreme poverty and the lack of enjoyment of human rights ensuing from it in a very affluent country such as the US are “a political choice made by those in power”[10] and render the US “exceptional in far more problematic ways […].”[11] These points are further corroborated by the Rapporteur’s acute concerns regarding the tax reform Congress was about to pass before the end of December 2017, labelled as “a bid to make the US the world champion of extreme inequality”;[12] efforts to undermine the effectiveness and reach of the Affordable Care Act; and the possible defunding of welfare programs and other forms of safety-net benefiting millions of children living in poverty that may result from the current presidential administration’s intention to overhaul US welfare.[13]

Third, for the Rapporteur extreme poverty is not ineluctable: it can be eliminated through the application of a rights-based approach.  Said approach requires a cluster of “indispensable ingredients for a set of policies designed to eliminate poverty” [14] which include: democratic decision-making, full employment policies, social protection for the vulnerable, a fair and effective justice system, gender and racial equality and respect for human dignity, responsible fiscal policies, and environmental justice.[15]  In the Rapporteur’s view, the US “falls far short on each of these issues”[16] for various and intricate reasons. For the purposes of this piece, it suffices to notice that democratic-decision making in the US leaves much to be desired from a poverty perspective because persons living in poverty are systematically deprived of their right to vote as result of explicit and surreptitious disenfranchisement (evident for instance in the imposition of “artificial and unnecessary voter ID requirements”[17]) which makes them “give up on the electoral system.”[18]  The justice system, on the other hand, is problematic because of the criminalization of homelessness it generates. The Rapporteur explains this dynamic very clearly.  Sleeping rough, sitting in public places, begging in the streets and infraction notices “rapidly turn into misdemeanors, […] the issuance of warrants, incarceration, the incurring of unpayable fines, and the stigma of a criminal conviction that in turn virtually prevents subsequent employment and access to most housing.”[19]  The hollow result is that in “many cities and counties the criminal justice system is effectively a system for keeping the poor in poverty while generating revenue to fund not only the justice system but diverse other programs.”[20]

The statement will be used to prepare a full-fledged report on extreme poverty and human rights in the US which will be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in the spring.  The report, which I expect to be as bold and compelling as the statement, will differ from the statement in so far as it will contain recommendations for the US to follow-up in order to address the issues the Rapporteur has expressed concerns about.

One recommendation that will likely feature in the report will urge the US to ratify the 1966 UN International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.  Ratification of the Covenant will dramatically contribute to paving the way to the actualization of the human rights-based approach to poverty and extreme poverty advocated by the Rapporteur. Why? Because Ratification of the Covenant will mean that the US will recognize a cluster of rights that are especially relevant to the predicament of those living in poverty and implement such rights in light of the authoritative interpretations the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, [21] thereby putting in place new and deliberate efforts to bring an end to poverty and extreme poverty.  To make this point clearer, let’s consider the situation of the homeless.   Ratification of the Covenant would change the US’ approach to the situation of these persons since it will entail: a) US’ acceptance of the right to adequate housing, implied in Article 11 (1) of the Covenant on the right to an adequate standard of living; and b) fulfillment of relevant obligations requiring inter alia, as clarified by the above UN Committee, genuine consultation with the homeless and their representatives for the purpose of adopting a national housing policy; and that where homelessness is extensive competent authorities urgently devise measures to provide homeless persons with temporary housing to be replaced, after a certain period of time, with permanent housing.[22]

More fundamentally however, follow-up to the Rapporteur’s recommendations and willingness to ratify the Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and implement it in good faith will presuppose that competent US authorities at all levels truly heed a precept that Martin Luther King Jr. lucidly formulated already in 1968 whereby  “genuine equality […] means economic equality.”[23]  The US’ reaction to the Rapporteur’s report will tell whether there is preparedness to work towards the achievement of real equality.

[1] Statement on Visit to the USA, by Professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, para. 37, available at; (accessed on January 16, 2018).

[2] Id. para. 4.

[3] Id. para. 1.

[4] Id. para. 32.

[5] Id. para. 10.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. para.11.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. para. 14. The Rapporteur draws on statistics used, developed and periodically updated by the US Census Bureau.

[10] Id. para. 15.

[11] Id. para. 6.

[12] Id. para. 47.

[13] Id. paras. 50 and 52.

[14] Id. para.16.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. para. 17.

[17] Id. para 18.

[18] Id. para. 19.

[19] Id. para. 32.

[20] Id. para. 33.

[21] The UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights is the body that monitors State parties compliance with the 1966 UN International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. The Committee puts forward interpretations of the Covenant in its General Comments. Thus far the Committee has adopted 24 General Comments available at (accessed on January 30, 2018).

[22] On the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights’ interpretation of the right to adequate housing see: CESCR, General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing (Art. 11(1) of the Covenant), UN Doc. E/1992/23 (1991), and Nifosi-Sutton I. “A Human Rights-Based Vulnerability Paradigm: Lessons from the Case of  Displaced Women in Post-Quake Haiti,” in Human Rights and Disasters, Sommario E. et Al. (eds.), Routledge, (forthcoming in 2018), particularly the second part of this essay.

[23] Eugene Robinson, “MLK’s Prophetic Call for Economic Justice,” January 15, 2015, available at; (accessed on January 30, 2018).

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