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The Trump administration doesn’t really care about poverty

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Echoing Melania Trump’s choice to wear a jacket that proclaimed, “I DON’T REALLY CARE, DO U?,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley made a similarly defiant declaration this week. 

According to Haley, “[i]t is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America” and went on to argue that “the Special Rapporteur used his platform to make misleading and politically motivated statements about American domestic policy issues.”

{mosads}While perhaps not quite as bold as the First Lady choosing such a tone-deaf jacket for a visit to detained migrant children, Haley’s dismissive attitude towards both the U.N. report and poverty in the United States is troubling.


The U.N. report notes that despite the country’s wealth, “[a]bout 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty.”

Moreover, the United States “has the highest youth poverty rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the highest infant mortality rates among comparable OECD States.” Americans “live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies,” and the country “has the world’s highest incarceration rate.”

These are facts, and not particularly controversial ones at that. The United States is an outlier when it comes to government anti-poverty programs. Even though conservative rhetoric consistently decries welfare dependency and imagines that safety net spending drives public debt, in fact we do far less than most other developed countries to reduce poverty through tax and transfer programs.

The notion that it is ridiculous for the U.N. to investigate American poverty is built on the false premise that the poor here are not really poor. They are not the third world poor; in fact, they are not that bad off, just lazy.

This position, championed by the Heritage Foundation among others, fails to account for the vulnerability and lived experience of poverty in a land of plenty. With the decline in cash welfare following welfare reform, many families have to rely almost entirely on food stamps (SNAP) and have incomes that fit international definitions of absolute poverty.

Even if we look at those slightly better off but still struggling, the U.N. poverty report’s comparison of what the United States does to alleviate poverty compared to other developed countries makes sense. After all, is our concern for the poor limited to the single question of whether the poor are starving or do food security, access to health care, and decent housing also matter?

Put differently, even if we adopt a narrow definition of poverty that excludes the working poor and lower middle class, a U.N. report that explores our government’s piecemeal approach to meeting the basic needs of the poor relative to other developed countries is hardly ridiculous. To suggest otherwise is to pretend that comparisons are meaningless, to imagine against reason that we have nothing to learn from the approach of other developed countries.

The political irony of Haley undermining a report about American poverty should not be lost on us. Hillary Clinton’s failure to connect with working class whites and candidate Trump’s ability to tap into class-based anger were favorite talking points of political pundits as they attempted to explain the 2016 election results.

Trump’s continued populism among a subset of the Republican party is tied in part to his pursuit of anti-establishment policies such as import tariffs and harsh immigration policies that the administration justifies as necessary to protect lower income workers.

And other Republicans, most notably Paul Ryan, instead of running away from poverty, put poverty at the center of their domestic agenda. Their policy innovations— such as imposing work requirements on Medicaid recipients — may be cruel and likely to harm rather than help the poor, but they at least claim to be trying to help the poor.

While the U.N. report does attack Trump and Republicans for dismantling social protections, the fact that, as the report notes, the “United States now has one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility of any of the rich countries” should be an issue of bipartisan concern.

Haley is by no means the first high-level official in the Trump orbit who has trouble understanding poverty. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his wife Louise Linton sparked two social media outcries through their in-your-face embrace of their privilege.

Interior Secretary Scott Pruitt had a history of using public positions to line his pockets and he has only gotten bolder since coming to Washington, D.C. Likewise, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross seems to have found ways to profit from his position despite promising at his confirmation hearing to do no such thing. Given that the Trump brand rests on ostentatious displays of wealth and that the most egregious examples of profiteering and corruption arguably involve the Trump family, including the President, Ivanka, Donald Jr., and Jared Kushner, perhaps Haley’s dismissive treatment of the damning U.N. report is not surprising.

Yet, it should be remembered that Trump’s improbable rise’s was fueled in part by economic stagnation and related anxiety about class and race in the more rural parts of the country that voted for him.

The Trump administration is not going to accept the U.N. report’s argument that the recent tax cuts primarily benefited the wealthy nor that more needs to be done to decriminalize poverty, but it could at least pretend that poverty matters and that a damning report about U.S. poverty should not be dismissed out of hand.

Ezra Rosser is a law professor at American University Washington College of Law. You can follow him on Twitter @EzraRosser.

Tags Hillary Clinton Jared Kushner Melania Trump Nikki Haley Paul Ryan Poverty Scott Pruitt Wilbur Ross

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