In December, as Congress enacted a gigantic tax cut for the richest Americans, moved to increase the taxes, over the next decade, of those making under $70,000, and reduced the health care coverage rolls by millions, Philip Alston, the United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, toured the country to determine whether American poverty undermines human liberty. He didn’t have much trouble coming to a conclusion.
Alston’s report finds that the United States is, by almost all measures, the world’s richest country. It also has become, broadly speaking, the “most unequal society in the world.” Our “exceptionalism” is “shockingly at odds with (our) immense wealth and founding commitment to human rights.”
We spend more on defense than China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia, India and Japan combined. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world – surpassing Russia, Cuba, China, El Salvador and Turkmenistan.
On health care, we spend double the average, per person, of the 37 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). But we have the worst infant mortality rate, we have shorter and sicker lifespans, and we exclude many, many more of our citizens from health care coverage than other advanced countries.
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The United States is the “clear and constant outlier in child poverty; shocking numbers of its children are poor,” Alston noted. We have, by far, the highest child poverty rate among the OECD nations. A quarter of our kids are impoverished, compared to 14 percent in the other 36 countries. Child poverty rates are particularly brutal in the southern states (including North Carolina where poverty, child poverty, income mobility, income inequality and health care coverage rates are notably worse than national averages).
The United States ranks 35 among the 37 major nations in poverty overall and, of course, we have the highest Gini index, which measures income inequality, of any advanced nation. Also unsurprisingly, of the 10 wealthiest countries, the United States does the least to alleviate poverty. We have the weakest social safety net and the worst income mobility. Poor people get tougher treatment here than in any comparable nation.
“The United States is alone among the major developed nations in insisting that while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, or dying from lack of access to health care, or children growing up in complete and total deprivation.”
He also added that the newly enacted tax/health care legislation and the unfolding cuts to the already-puny social safety net will make these inequities decidedly worse. It’s as if we’ve decided last place isn’t bad enough. I’m guessing Mr. Alston won’t be invited back soon.
Of course the United Nations Human Rights Council report didn’t get much play here. We don’t like the UN. We put America first. Or at least we put the richest Americans first. Thousands of one-percenters and their paid henchmen stand ready to explain to us that our world-beating economic inequality is really what is best for poor people. And besides, we don’t like looking in the mirror. We’re not only the richest, the poorest and the most unequal nation in the world, we’re also the most hypocritical. We make sure that every impoverished American child pledges daily allegiance to a treasured “liberty and justice for all.” No one better take a knee here, not if he knows what’s good for him.
Donald Trump is not the United States’ leading outrage, disgusting as he and his Republican and evangelical enablers are. That indignity is reserved for the way we treat our poorest children. No ideological facade can justify it, though many spend their professional lives in the cynical effort. No actual religion could tolerate it, though millions of American Christians mock the teachings of Jesus with their prosperity crusades. No real democracy could survive it, because there can be no equal dignity and opportunity while the richest nation in history crushes the life prospects of so many of its kids.
I was shocked that we elected Donald Trump. I’m guessing Philip Alston wasn’t. Any prodigiously wealthy nation that treats its poorest members like we do knows no bottom. If being the cruelest doesn’t give us pause, what will? Perhaps it’s time to dismantle the Statue of Liberty and shred the Declaration of Independence. As John Prine put it: “take the star out of the window and let (our) conscience take a rest.”
Gene Nichol, a contributing N&O columnist, is the Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor of law at the University of North Carolina.