In a move that some would find unthinkable, the United Nations has taken interest in U.S. poverty, touring the country from east to west in an effort to hold the United States government accountable for its poorest of citizens.
The tour, which kicked off on Friday morning, will make stops in four states as well as Washington DC and the US territory of Puerto Rico. It will focus on several of the social and economic barriers that render the American dream merely a pipe dream to millions – from homelessness in California to racial discrimination in the Deep South, cumulative neglect in Puerto Rico and the decline of industrial jobs in West Virginia.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 41 million Americans live in poverty, and the U.N.'s Philip Alston, an Australian and New York University law professor, seeks to show that even the wealthiest, most powerful countries are not immune to the effects of such drastic income inequality.
At the heart of his fact-finding tour will be a question that is causing increasing anxiety at a troubled time: is it possible, in one of the world’s leading democracies, to enjoy fundamental human rights such as political participation or voting rights if you are unable to meet basic living standards, let alone engage, as Thomas Jefferson put it, in the pursuit of happiness?
Perhaps foreshadowing the U.N. visit, in its 2016 state of the nation review the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality ranked the United States last of 10 wealthy countries regarding income and wealth inequality.
It also found that the US hit rock bottom in terms of the safety net it offers struggling families, and is one of the worst offenders in terms of the ability of low-income families to lift themselves out of poverty – a stark contrast to the much-vaunted myth of the American dream.
Response to Alston's findings could go either way, with the U.S. seizing the opportunity to take a hard look at itself or choosing to ignore or belittle the messenger.
Alston’s findings will be announced in preliminary form in Washington on 15 December, and then presented as a full report to the UN human rights council in Geneva next June. An especially unpredictable element of the fallout will be how Trump himself receives the final report, given the president’s habit of lashing out at anyone perceived to criticize him or his administration.