Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Poor Americans

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Poor Americans

Article excerpt

In a distinguished career as special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights for the United Nations, Australian Philip Alston has visited some of the earth's most troubled and impoverished places. He has witnessed everything from the ravages of internecine conflict in the Central African Republic to the misery of a cholera epidemic in Haiti. But after a fact-finding mission in December to yet another troubled nation, Alston pronounced himself shocked by the conditions and the poverty he and his team had seen.

"I saw sewage-filled yards in states where governments don't consider sanitation facilities to be their responsibility," he said in his report to the United Nations. "I saw people who had lost all of their teeth because adult dental care is not... available to the very poor; I heard about soaring death rates and family and community destruction wrought by prescription and other drug addiction."

Alston wasn't visiting a newly emerging economy in South Asia or an African nation trying to restore itself after civil conflict but the United States of America, where he encountered a level of poverty and social disenfranchisement that he described as unprecedented in an advanced economy.

Indeed the United States stands alone among its peer-states in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Infant mortality and youth poverty are higher in the United States than in any other advanced Western state. Though the United States spends more than twice as much per capita as the OECD average, its citizens can expect to live "sicker and shorter" lives, Alston pointed out in a press conference announcing his findings. Wealth inequality was the highest among OECD countries and social mobility among the lowest. Almost a quarter of America's children are growing up poor.

"The United States is one of the world's richest, most powerful, and technologically innovative countries," Alston writes, "but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty. …

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