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  • Demonstrators protest against tax cuts for the rich as they pass a homeless person in  Manhattan, New York, November 2017.

    Demonstrators protest against tax cuts for the rich as they pass a homeless person in Manhattan, New York, November 2017. | Photo: Reuters

Published 16 December 2017

"Today's United States has proved itself exceptional in ways shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights," the United Nations reports.

The United States – one of the world's richest and most powerful countries – is being transformed by President Donald Trump and his Republican Congress into the "world champion of inequality," according to a scathing new report by the United Nations' monitor on extreme poverty and human rights.

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Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, an Australian academic and law professor at New York University, completed a 15-day fact-finding mission spanning California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico and West Virginia before making his findings public late last week.

He concluded that "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."

Alston, who spent time with both public officials and people living in extreme poverty, also dispelled the popular myth that the poor are derived exclusively from ethnic minority groups. 

There are, according to his report, eight million more white people than African-Americans living below the poverty threshhold. "The face of poverty in America is not only black or Hispanic, but also white, Asian and many other colors," Alston writes.

He also noted common misconceptions among elected officials about the difference between rich and poor, including the notion that "the rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic and the drivers of economic success [while] the poor are wasters, losers and scammers.

"Despite the fact that this is contradicted by the facts, some of the politicians and political appointees with whom I spoke were completely sold on the narrative of such scammers sitting on comfortable sofas, watching color TVs, while surfing on their smartphones, all paid for by welfare."

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Among the most alarming findings in Alston's report is his conclusion regarding Trump's proposed tax reforms, of which he writes:  "The proposed tax-reform package stakes out America's bid to become the most unequal society in the world, and will greatly increase the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest 1% and the poorest 50% of Americans. 

"The dramatic cuts in welfare, foreshadowed by Donald Trump and speaker Ryan, and already beginning to be implemented by the administration, will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes."

Other key indicators in the report include the fact that Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives compared to people living in any other rich democracy, and the "health gap" between the United States and its peer countries continues to grow.

The report also notes that inequality levels in the United States are far higher than those in most European countries; that 25% of young people live in poverty compared to less than 14% across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

As Alston observes: "The United States is one of the world’s richest and most powerful and technologically innovative countries, 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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