In December, Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty, toured the United States to observe and report on poverty in the world’s richest country. He went to several US cities, including Los Angeles. He spoke to people left behind in this time of economic expansion—war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, women fleeing abusive relationships, people who lost their jobs and homes in the recession and who now sleep on the sidewalks, and individuals living off Social Security checks that don’t cover rent in our inflated housing markets.
Alston released his report last week, and his assessment was unsparing. He said the “immense wealth” in this country “stands in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live.” In the United States, he writes, about 40 million people live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million in “absolute poverty.” He described conditions, including high infant-mortality rates, exposure to raw sewage, lack of basic medical care and sanitation, and malnutrition. He said that deliberate policy decisions by local, state, and federal governments are part of the cause.
The Trump administration dismissed the UN report. Ambassador Nikki Haley wrote, “It is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America.” This response is not surprising, given the White House’s hostility to the UN, and that the report criticized Republican tax cuts as exacerbating conditions of poverty. Denial of the problem will have tragic consequences.
The federal government, however, is not alone implementing policies that contribute to extreme poverty. In his report, Alston sharply criticized local governments for criminalizing homeless people, noting that police ticket and arrest them for “crimes” like sitting on the sidewalk, sleeping in public places, and similar offenses. My home city of Los Angeles provides an example of the failure of these policies and the choices city leaders must make across the country.
Driving into downtown from the freeways, one cannot miss the giant cranes and construction as hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to build skyscrapers that will house corporate law firms, investment banks, real-estate brokerages, tech firms, and the other big-money players that are winning in our booming economy. As one looks closer, however, in the shadows of these buildings are encampments of tattered tents, soiled mattresses, dirty clothing, and people barely surviving on the streets.
Under Eric Garcetti, a Democratic mayor with presidential aspirations, Los Angeles aggressively administers laws that criminalize homelessness, rather than focus on developing affordable housing or providing sufficient services. Alston pointed out that Los Angeles provides only nine public toilets for approximately 1,800 people on Skid Row who live on the streets, but enforces public-urination laws. A person surviving on a few hundred dollars a month disability payment cannot afford a $300 ticket for sitting on the sidewalk, so the ticket will go to warrant and that person will go to jail.