Extreme income inequality poses a threat to the well-being of American democracy.
NEW YORK—The United Nations Commission on Human Rights will open debate June 21 on a special report by its lead investigator, who said the U.S. not only “is the most unequal society in the developed world,” but that Trump administration policies – notably the $1.5 trillion tax cut for the rich – have made a bad situation worse.
UN Special Rapporteur (investigator) On Human Rights Philip Alston, a New York University international law professor, rarely named GOP President Donald Trump and cited only House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., for pushing the tax cuts and shredding the social safety net.
But “the tax cuts will fuel a global race to the bottom,” he declared after a long investigation and visits to key cities nationwide, discussions with policymakers in D.C., and a special trip to hurricane-smashed Puerto Rico.
Alston sent his report to the UN commission. The commission’s findings carry weight overseas, but U.S. politicians frequently criticize the panel’s disregard of human rights abuses in developing nations.
While Alston discusses recent policies in detail, he said the GOP is not alone to blame. He noted the tax cuts follow “five decades of policies, neglectful at best,” and fueled by prejudice, aimed at the poor.
“Policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship,” Alston reported. That’s an obvious criticism of the Trump administration and the GOP-run Congress.
Alston also said the situation could get even worse than it already is, as massive wealth inequality produces a massive transfer of political power to the rich, at the expense of the rest of us, poor and middle class.
“The problem is ‘inequality’ lacks salience with the general public, who have long been encouraged to admire the conspicuous, and often obscene, consumption of billionaires and celebrities,” Alston admits. “What extreme inequality actually signifies is the transfer of economic and political power to a handful of elites who inevitably use it to further their own self-interest. While the poor suffer, so too do the middle class, and so does the economy as a whole.”
“The $1.5 trillion in tax cuts in December 2017 overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy and worsened inequality,” his report says. “The consequences of neglecting poverty and promoting inequality are clear. The United States has one of the highest poverty and inequality levels among the OECD countries, and the Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty ranks it 18th out of 21 wealthy countries in terms of labor markets, poverty rates, safety nets, wealth inequality and economic mobility.”
In plain English, the old American Dream of getting ahead is largely illusory, Alston found. Your wealth and income, and that of your kids, is often determined by your zip code, he said – with residents of poorer zip codes ignored politically and being trapped in a cycle of poverty.
“And while 5.3 million people in the U.S. live in outright poverty characteristic of Third World countries, in 2018 the United States had over 25 per cent of the world’s 2,208 billionaires. There is thus a dramatic contrast between the immense wealth of the few and the squalor and deprivation in which vast numbers of Americans exist.”
Using federal figures, Alston calculates 40 million people live below the U.S. poverty line. The New Poor People’s Campaign, however, puts the figure at 140 million. NPPC co-chair Rev. Liz Theoharis explains the official federal poverty line for a family of three, which just crept up to $20,780 yearly, cannot pay for rent, food and other necessities in all but 22 of the more than 3,000 U.S. counties.
And that official poverty figure includes the 85 percent of the poor who work. Alston used Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, as an example. But he said other firms follow the firm’s model.
“Many of its workers cannot survive on a full-time wage in the absence of food stamps. This fits in a broader trend: The share of households that, while having earnings, also receive nutrition assistance rose from 19.6 per cent in 1989 to 31.8 per cent in 2015,” from food stamps. The tax cut gave Wal-Mart alone billions of dollars, Alston said while the food stamp program alone provided $6 billion in aid to workers at Wal-Mart and similar enterprises.
Racism plays a large part in the meager benefits for the poor, Alston said – even though the largest group of the poor is white.
“Racist stereotypes are usually not far beneath the surface. The poor are overwhelmingly assumed to be people of color, whether African Americans or Hispanic ‘immigrants,’” he found. “The reality is there are eight million more poor whites than there are poor Blacks. The face of poverty in America is not only Black or Hispanic, but also white, Asian and many other backgrounds.”
So does political clout. Alston noted politicians frequently ignore poor neighborhoods and barriers to voting are rampant and getting worse – and particularly target the poor. Meanwhile, the rich use their increasing wealth to concentrate more and more political power in their own hands, he reported.
As noted by Forbes: “America’s first billionaire president has remained devoted to the goal of placing his wealthy friends in his Cabinet, a top campaign promise.” And many regulatory agencies are now staffed by “political appointees with deep industry ties and potential conflicts.”
“Extreme inequality thus poses a threat not just to economic efficiency but to the well-being of American democracy,” he declared.
Top Photo | Homeless tents are dwarfed by skyscrapers in Los Angeles. (AP/Jae C. Hong)