UN report on US poverty: dystopian future or devastating reality?

UN report on US poverty: dystopian future or devastating reality?
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In science fiction, we have an opportunity to explore another world, another version of reality for Earth or life on other planets. Sometimes this glimpse at life involves entirely different species or lets us look back at ourselves from another perspective.

A recent piece of literature describes a society of extreme poverty and human rights violations. Across the country, in urban as well as rural areas, in the North and South, the East and West, it tells a story of a United States where vast wealth and great innovation exist side by side with shocking and abject poverty, where millions have little hope to improve the circumstances for themselves or their children.


At the same time, it documents widespread beliefs about the innate differences between these two groups that are little more than caricatures: one being industrious and entrepreneurial, the other wasters and losers with themselves to blame for their lot in life.


But this recent addition to the literature is not a new dystopian sci-fi novel, it’s a United Nations report on the state of American society. The U.N. has a long history of researching and reporting on the plight of nations throughout the world in search of both human rights violations, as well as positing solutions for better growth.

As part of this year’s report to the Human Rights Council, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur wrote a scathing report of our country’s extreme poverty and its human rights obligation to make vast improvements.

To be clear, the evidence highlighted by the report of the Special Rapporteur is not news to many who study extreme poverty and political and economic disenfranchisement, let alone to those who actually experience it. And, it is far from ridiculous for the U.N. to describe poverty in the United States in such stark terms.

The release of the U.N. report coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign, a demonstration organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to demand economic justice and human rights for all Americans.

In a series of posts commemorating that anniversary, my colleagues at the Economic Policy Institute have demonstrated that poverty has persisted in this country because of a stingy safety net and a dysfunctional labor market.

To be sure, when it has been actively waged, the “War and Poverty” actually made a serious dent in reducing poverty, particularly when you consider the role of Social Security in reducing elderly poverty, but the rise in child poverty reveals persistent racial injustices and flagging national interest in devoting resources to alleviate deprivation.

One thing the U.N. investigation highlights in great detail is the cultural narrative in the United States of winners and losers, those worthy and those not, and how this ideology gets reinforced and is used to justify the actions of our policymakers.

It is a decision of those in power to restrict the well-being of millions and refuse to see their humanity. There is no single silver bullet for eliminating extreme poverty, but there’s clearly a recipe: a stronger safety net and better opportunities in the labor market. The evidence that this recipe works is clear: Countries that invest more in social programs have less child poverty.

The rhetoric of makers and takers aside, it should be clear that willingness and ability to seek work does not inoculate against poverty. One-in-nine workers are paid poverty-level wages, even when working full time. This labor market dysfunction is worst for historically discriminated-against groups.

For example, black and Hispanic workers are disproportionately found in low-wage jobs, and the erosion of the federal minimum wage has increased poverty for these groups. We need to prioritize additional employment growth with higher wages, sufficient hours and better benefits.

The U.N.’s recommendations for the United States to fight poverty include:

  • decriminalize being poor;
  • recognize the precariousness of the middle class for their own well-being as well as the future of democracy;
  • acknowledge that vast inequality manifests itself in poor education, health care and social protections, which undermine sustained economic growth;
  • recognize a human right to health care and policies that are economically and socially destructive for the middle class and those in poverty; and
  • use the tax system to protect those in poverty who are politically marginalized as opposed to the politically powerful rich and recognize that redistribution could be good for growth.

It is clear that extreme poverty has far-reaching consequences for those living in poverty as well as society at large. A better understanding of its wide-spread effects is only the first step. Closely on its heels, action must be taken.

Elise Gould is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute where she focuses on wages, poverty, jobs, health care and economic mobility.