Poverty in the Midst of Plenty

Philip Alston, an Australian academic who is the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has just finished a nine-day tour of poverty in America, which included visits to Los Angeles, San Francisco, the deep South, Puerto Rico, and West Virginia.  What he saw, as reported in a recent article in the Guardian, was deplorable and despicable.   

In Los Angeles, General Dogon, who spent several years sleeping on the streets of Skid Row and currently works to improve conditions there, served as Alston’s guide.  They toured 50 blocks of “concentrated human humiliation. A nightmare in plain view, in the city of dreams.”  Near the center of Los Angeles’ downtown, Skid Row contains thousands of tattered tents and tarpaulin shelters.  The City of Angels has far more street dwellers than any other city in the country, and many of its 55,000 sleep on Skid Row, where they coexist with rats, cockroaches, and bed bugs.

Along with their lack of shelter and struggle to get food, the homeless in Los Angeles and other places including Wilmington, North Carolina, where I live, lack access to public bathrooms, compelling people to relieve themselves on the streets.  The problem is particularly acute at night when many public restrooms are locked.  The ratio of toilets to people in Skid Row at night is substantially below the one the UN mandates for Syrian refugee camps.

In San Francisco, however, Alston found an “analgesic for his soul,” two Catholic churches that allow the homeless to sleep in their facilities during business hours.  No other houses of worship in the city welcome homeless people, and many, even during the Christmas season, are locking their doors to exclude them.

Not surprisingly, Alston reports that conditions are especially appalling for the African Americans he visited who live in the deep South.  Blacks are 13 percent of the American population, but 23 percent of those living below the poverty line and 39 percent of the homeless in the country.  In the Black Belt (locales that are almost exclusively African American) across Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, many families do not even have proper sanitation.   Thousands of families in places such as Lowndes County Alabama “live among open sewers of the sort normally associated with the developing world.”   

The conditions in Puerto Rico were even worse.  Even before Maria wreaked havoc this fall, the island’s proportion of people in poverty (44 percent) was twice as great as the poorest US state.  The hurricane destroyed many essential services and pushed the estimated poverty rate to 60 percent.  Alston surveyed Guayama, a town of 42,000 near where Maria made landfall. He saw devastation everywhere—some houses had collapsed, while others had no roofs, power lines drooped chillingly over neighborhoods, and many people’s livelihood had been destroyed.

Alston expressed alarm that 41 million people live below the poverty line in the richest nation in human history.  Nine million Americans have no income whatsoever.  Like many, he fears that the Republican tax bill, if passed, will exacerbate wealth inequality, which is already greater than that of any other economically-advanced nation.  Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and financier Warren Buffet currently have as much net worth as the poorer 50% of Americans.  Alston also laments that the United States provides such little public assistance to the poor. 

Surely, given our resources, we can do much more to help our poorest citizens through both the private and public sectors.  Alston will soon be issuing a preliminary report of his investigation.

Photo credit: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian


Gary SmithComment