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UN finds 'extreme poverty' in the USA

By Russell Grenning - posted Tuesday, 17 July 2018

According to the official United Nations definition, "extreme poverty" is defined as having to live on less than $1.90 a day or just under $700 a year so a report by their Human Rights Council (HRC) that an astounding 12.7% of Americans – some 41.4 million people - are living in poverty did raise some eyebrows.

The Human Rights Council currently includes such beacons of democracy and prosperity as China, Cuba, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and even one of its principal Australian defenders Professor Sarah Joseph, Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University describes it as "a highly politicised body" and, she noted recently, "2018 is in fact one of the worst years in terms of numbers of non-free HRC members."

President Trump announced in late June that the USA would be withdrawing from the HRC. Shortly before that announcement came the damning report grimly laying bare the grinding poverty of so many Americans under Trump's jackboot. The report may well have died a lonely death in a back cupboard at the UN if it had not been a letter to the US UN Ambassador Nikki Haley signed by a handful of US Congress members led by prominent left-wing Democrats Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren expressing their "deep concern" about the findings. The letter caused quite some mirth and criticism in the USA.


The UN Report was prepared by an Australian former lawyer Philip Alston who has been a UN bureaucrat with various impressive titles since 1987. It was in his current capacity as the "Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights" that he prepared his bombshell report. "Rapporteur" is a fancy French word meaning investigator/secretary. Mr Alston is the brother of former Liberal Minister for Communications and Australian High Commissioner to the UK, Richard Alston.

To prepare his report Mr Alston spent a whole fortnight – that's two weeks – in the USA. It was a masterful piece of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo.

Despite the UN definition of extreme poverty cited above, Mr Alston blithely ignored that and decided to use instead the US Government's own so-called "official poverty measure" although he neglected to mention that this "official poverty measure" is in the range of $7,000 a year – about ten times higher than the UN's definition. Then he decided to consider that US measure of poverty as indicative – even proving – "extreme poverty".

"The persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power. With political will, it could be completely eliminated," Mr Alston wrote. Presumably all these really, really poor US citizens are a result of the Trump Administration because there was never any mention of it during the eight Obama years.

Blatantly, the report deliberately excluded from any consideration of the more than $US1.2 trillion of annual cash and in-kind redistributions to low-income US citizens. There are scores of programs in the USA ranging from direct welfare grants to food stamps, energy assistance, school lunches, housing, Medicaid (health insurance) and legal services and more. It has been estimated that counting this $US1.2 trillion of annual redistribution towards the income of recipients would reduce the official poverty level (using the US Government definition which the Report did itself) to about 2% or about 6.5 million people – very long way from Mr Alston's assertion that 41.4 million were in "extreme poverty".

In fact, if the $US1.2 trillion is divided by the number of people allegedly living in poverty then it has been calculated that every affected person would be getting about $30,000 a year from the taxpayer. Further, it has been argued that the 2% of Americans who don't seek welfare and other benefits have decided themselves, for one reason or another, not to ask for them. If they did ask, then they would receive.


None of this managed to get into Mr Alston's Report simply because he didn't want it to be included although he did assert that this average $30,000 a year from the taxpayer (and he didn't mention the figure) was "the meagre welfare arrangements that currently exist." That wasn't just ignorance, that was prejudice and malice.

In many ways the US Government itself is passively complicit in this bogus report because, incredibly, it does not include as income almost all government handouts and benefits when assessing poverty levels. Thus, the number of people living in poverty is artificially high.

Not content with this shabby fraud about poverty, Mr Alston decided to give the US a lecture on everything from the criminal justice system to income inequality to racism. You can guess what his views were.

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About the Author

Russell Grenning is a retired political adviser and journalist who began his career at the ABC in 1968 and subsequently worked for the then Brisbane afternoon daily, The Telegraph and later as a columnist for The Courier Mail and The Australian.

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