Shame on US

The third post for Stirring the Pot in August 2015 was titled Class Warfare and dealt with the problem of inequality in the United States.  It is an issue that I have returned to several times since.  Inequality continues to erode the social fabric of this nation and the situation grows worse with each passing year.  The reality of this was brought home to me with the release in May by the United Nations (U.N.) of the “Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on his mission to the United States of America.”

Americans see themselves as champions for human rights.  Eleanor Roosevelt played a central role in the writing of the original United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Sometimes we speak out as a nation on human rights in light of our geopolitical interests.  So we condemn the human rights abuses in Iran, an “enemy” of the U.S., while we ignore similar issues in Saudi Arabia, an “ally.”  Other times we champion human rights without regard to global political calculus.   But Americans almost always bridle at the suggestion from other countries that we too have human rights issues to address.  We see ourselves, after all, as the “land of the free and home of the brave” with “liberty and justice for all.”  This new U.N. report challenges our self image.

The report was prepared by a Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, an Australian by birth who is currently a professor of International Law at the New York University School of Law.  This is part of an ongoing program of country visits by U.N. Human Rights Council “…to report to the Council on the extent to which the Government’s policies and programmes relating to extreme poverty are consistent with its human rights obligations…”  So while the reality of growing inequality and poverty in the U.S. is not new, placing these issues in the context of international norms of human rights gives them additional salience.   The U.N. report is sobering.

Our self-image is that we are the strongest, wealthiest, and most dynamic country in world.  The report details a darker side to our nation.  In the U.S.:

  • “About 40 million (Americans) live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty.”
  • …we have “the highest youth poverty rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)” and “the highest infant mortality rates among comparable OECD states.”
  • …we live “shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies…”
  • we have “the world’s highest incarceration rate…”
  • we have “the highest obesity rates in the developed world.”
  • and “the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries…”

A common response to this litany of social and economic ills is: yes, but America is the “land of opportunity.”   This is another common myth—that is, our society may be increasingly unequal but hard work and creativity will be rewarded with upward mobility.  The reality is that “the United States now has one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility of any of the rich countries.”  Being born into a wealthy household is, more than ever, the best predictor of economic success in America.  Children of the well off go to better schools, have larger vocabularies, travel more, and go more often to selective colleges and universities.  These and other advantages pave the way to a place in the upper classes, while everyone else is kept out.

The perspective of this U.N. report is that economic rights are basic human rights.  “…the United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable health care or growing up in a context of total deprivation.”  And this is fundamentally a political issue.  “…in a rich country like the United States, the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power.”

The last time that inequality and poverty were this serious in the U.S. was at the start of the Great Depression.  From that point until the mid-1970s inequality steadily declined and the promise of prosperity for all was closer than ever.  Since 1980 the shares of American economic success have increasingly gone to the richest segment of society and it has become ever harder for everyone else to crack into that realm.

There will be no simple solutions to the two problems of inequality and extreme poverty.  But before we can talk about solutions we need first to agree on what kind of country we want.  For me, I am shamed by a land characterized by brutal competition leaving a few people fabulously wealthy and the rest left behind.  I imagine us as a more humane people where we see the value in each other as humans with the right to live decent and meaningful lives.  With a shared vision of economic rights for all, we can find the ways to make ourselves proud of the humanity of a land with liberty and justice for all.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.