In May, Professor Philip Alston, special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights for the United Nations, was invited by the U.S. federal government to look at whether extreme poverty in America undermines the enjoyment of human rights by its citizens. Professor Alston’s shocking report stated that 40 million Americans live in poverty and 18.5 million Americans live in extreme poverty.
At the end of his tour, he wrote, “I have seen and heard a lot over the past two weeks. I met with many people barely surviving on Skid Row in Los Angeles, I witnessed a San Francisco police officer telling a group of homeless people to move on but having no answer when asked where they could move to, I heard how thousands of poor people get minor infraction notices which seem to be intentionally designed to quickly explode into un-payable debt, incarceration, and the replenishment of municipal coffers, I saw sewage-filled yards in states where governments don’t consider sanitation facilities to be their responsibility, I saw people who had lost all of their teeth because adult dental care is not covered by the vast majority of programs available to the very poor, I heard about soaring death rates and family and community destruction wrought by opioids, and I met with people in Puerto Rico living next to a mountain of completely unprotected coal ash which rains down upon them, bringing illness, disability and death.”
“American exceptionalism was a constant theme in my conversations,” said Alston. “But instead of realizing its founders’ admirable commitments, today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights. As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.”
Yes, the United States of North America is an exceptional nation. We are exceptionally wealthy, and exceptionally poor! Among wealthy nations, the United States stands out for its wealth inequality. The top 1 percent of households own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. Nine million of us, in fact, have zero income and receive no cash assistance at all.
This is a tale of two Americas: one in which an individual such as Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, has the right to privately own $140 billion in socially produced wealth with the full backing of the government, and the other where millions of workers, including the so-called “middle class,” are thrown to the curb in the new, increasingly automated, jobless economy, without a safety net to soften the blow.
The story doesn’t end here.
No! We, the people are not standing still. We are waking up and finding our strengths, coming together in our common struggle for survival. We are fighting forward with a vision of a better society—one where every life matters— one where we the people own the marvelous technologies that are producing such abundance, one where what we need is distributed to meet human need.
Our first step in creating this new society is to demand that government provide the necessities of life such as healthcare, food, housing, water and education to everyone. We deserve no less! Who is the government going to serve? The people or the billionaires?