Reframing American Poverty as a Human Rights Issue
In 1941, at the height of World War II, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his seminal speech, “The Four Freedoms,” before Congress, in which he declared his vision for all people to have freedom from want – the ability to enjoy economic stability and have a “healthy peacetime life” (10). In 1948, the United States was not only a signatory to the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), but it also figured prominently in the drafting process. Indeed, FDR’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, played a significant role in drafting the document, drawing on the “Four Freedoms'' as the basis for the UDHR (13). Nearly, 75 years later, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, found this freedom from want to be dangerously missing in several parts of the very country where this concept – the inextricable link between poverty and basic human rights – was conceived. In 2017, Professor Alston visited the United States to assess the extent of poverty in various communities across the countries from Skid Row in Los Angeles to various indigenous communities (1). Professor Alston’s report on his findings illuminated that nearly 40 million in the United States – a nation of nearly 330 million people – were living in a state of poverty (5).
II. Contextualizing Anti-Poverty Discourse
A key point to consider in the discourse on poverty is the reciprocal relationship between poverty and social exclusion. Issues like access to food, clean water, shelter, and education are all part of a broader concept of ensuring that individuals have equitable opportunities to live a dignified and fulfilling life. These more material scarcities, however, are often at the center of discussions about poverty; social and political marginalization is often less prominent in anti-poverty discourse.
These two ideas, however, are not only deeply intertwined, but they share a bidirectional relationship. In fact, Nobel Peace Prize-winning development economist Amartya Sen, explores this relationship to a great extent in his seminal work, Development as Freedom, in which he discusses freedom as both a means and an end for development (2). He puts forth a framework which outlines how an increase in economic freedom is inextricably linked to a growing range of freedoms overall, and that development and therefore freedom does not simply result from an increase in basic income or per capita income, but rather that economic protections and political freedoms are all integral to development as a whole (2). In other words, when individuals are able to fulfill basic needs – instead of having to make trade-offs between essential needs – they are then able to exercise more meaningful choices, such as being civically engaged or pursuing entrepreneurial endeavors. In writing that “development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systemic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states”, Sen makes the case for the government’s role in protecting individuals’ economic and political rights and capabilities (2). The key takeaway from Sen’s work, which has since formed the basis for the UN Human Development report, is that political and economic freedoms together equate to development which then feeds into a growing range of freedoms and opportunity.
IV. Perceptions of American Poverty
The idea that American poverty is a dire issue is met with skepticism from both Americans and the international community alike. There is a common misconception that the American categorization of “poor” is relative. Perhaps these 40 million individuals are poor when compared to their wealthier American counterparts, but even America’s “poor” are still much better off when compared to individuals in developing nations. In reality, America’s poor are faring as badly, if not worse than, their global counterparts. In his report, Professor Alston noted that members of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (the Oglala Lakota Nation) were living on annual incomes that amounted to less than $12,000 and experiencing soaring infant mortality rates that were triple the national average (1). By global standards, their living conditions are quantifiably comparable to those in Haiti. Nearly five years after Alston’s visit, the Pine Ridge Reservation has persisted as one of the nation’s poorest regions. Indeed, several Native American reservations comprise some of the lowest-income areas in the United States (14).
Other areas of the United States also have conditions comparable or worse than developing nations around the world. A 2017 World Health Organization report found that China surpassed the U.S. with a higher life expectancy for children (5). Corroborating this, a 2018 Save the Children Report, found that the average life expectancy for Appalachian communities tends to be lower than that of inhabitants in Vietnam and Bangladesh, owing largely to poor infrastructure such as inaccessible healthcare and nutritious food (7).
The question that stands then is why American poverty is divorced from the issue of human rights, and why there is a distinction between American poverty and global poverty. Within the United States, while many do not deny the existence of poverty, they do question the gravity of American poverty as compared to global poverty. The concept of American exceptionalism, an outlook embraced by American politicians and individuals alike, underlies their skepticism. To admit that the American poor face the same levels of insecurity as those in developing nations runs counter to the United States’s image as a leader in both democracy and development. Indeed, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, was indignant that the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights was surveying poverty in the United States (5). And to a large extent, the United States’s self-projection as a powerful leader on the international stage leaves individuals outside the United States equally skeptical of the dire nature of poverty.
It is important to note, however, that the difference between American poverty and global poverty has little, if anything, to do with the population or individuals themselves. Rather, the difference is that one government has the political and economic capabilities to alleviate poverty, while the other governments may not. And perhaps, it is this very difference in capability that makes it difficult for people outside the United States to see American poverty as a human rights issue.
Another equally critical factor in the differing perceptions of American poverty and global poverty (and the subsequent distinction of American poverty as a human rights issue) has to do with the highly individualistic nature of American culture that results in an us-versus-them outlook. Global poverty, for example, is often thought of as a regional issue. Even if poverty is concentrated in certain parts of a region, that issue is labeled as a characteristic of the region as a whole (e.g. development issues in Africa or poverty in India).
The conception in the United States is largely different. While specific laws and policies, detailed in the following section, indeed disproportionately impact certain racial and social groups more than others, poverty is prevalent in communities across the United States. Still, American poverty is largely thought of along racial lines. This, combined with the increasingly illusory concept of the American Dream, reinforces the notion that poverty is an individual-level issue (i.e. these individuals are poor because of their negligence, lack of hard work, and absence of “good” characteristics) (8). This latter point once again underscores the politicized nature of poverty and the social exclusion that compounds the more materially devastating effects of poverty.
III. The Realities of Poverty in the American Context
Understanding the historical context that underlies the American justice system as well as recognizing how economic wants are used to wear down the social fabric of a community is critical to understanding the link between American poverty and human rights. Having established the link between economic development and freedom through Sen’s framework, we can thus apply his lessons in the American context. In spite of the implementation of some welfare programs, many qualifying individuals find it difficult to access these benefits. As Sen insinuated, a lack of economic freedom takes away from political freedom, which further feeds into a lack of economic opportunity as the socio-economically marginalized are underrepresented politically. In recent years, many low-income individuals have found it difficult to access welfare and benefits; access to cash benefits and non-cash benefits is limited to begin with, and states are increasingly restricting the availability and accessibility of welfare programs (9). A 2021 Center on Budget Policies and Priorities (CBPP) report revealed that many states have weakened general assistance by reducing funding and imposing tighter eligibility restrictions for these programs. In almost all states, the maximum benefit levels for these programs fall below half the federally-designated poverty level (9). Ironically, because these programs are state and locally-funded, they are the most likely to lose funding when a state is experiencing a fiscal crisis, as was the case during the pandemic. Thus, many poor individuals are often at their most vulnerable during the greatest time of need.
Sen’s conceptualization of economic freedom as being integral to a greater range of freedoms is further apparent when looking at the debilitating impacts of the criminalization of poverty in America. It is important to preface the following section by noting that, contrary to the stereotypes, American poverty has no one face. The criminalization that often accompanies poverty, however, often has a disproportionate impact on certain racial groups. The most prominent example of this is perhaps the disenfranchisement of felons. As of this year, nearly 4.6 million Americans are restricted from voting due to a felony conviction (11). The same report reveals that the disenfranchisement for African-Americans, is on average, 3.5 times that of non-African Americans – nearly 1 in 19 African Americans who are of voting age are restricted from doing so (11). Re-enfranchisement can be an arduous, tricky, and expensive process depending on the state, often requiring formerly incarcerated individuals to pay court debt (3). Nearly 80% forgo basic necessities like rent, food, medical bills, and child support to pay off or take on payday or title loans to pay outstanding court debt (3). They may also be unable to fulfill child support obligations, for which they also face criminal penalties (3). A Brookings Institute Report encapsulates the injustice of the current justice system, noting that “more than half of the formerly incarcerated are unable to find stable employment within their first year of return and three-fourths of them are rearrested within three years of release” (4). There is little opportunity to emerge from the depths of poverty in a system that perpetuates those very conditions.
Notably, many of these disenfranchisement laws have their roots in the Reconstruction Era, a time that sought to repress minority – namely Black – communities (6). In an analogous situation, Professor Alston notes that the Indigenous people, who are often overlooked in this discourse, advocate for federal recognition as integral to ending the cycle of generational poverty that is characteristic of many reservations across the country. With their way of life criminalized, indigenous peoples continue to be disempowered – much like other disenfranchised citizens who go unrepresented in U.S. politics. An erosion of Indigenous culture and political representation, Professor Alston notes, is responsible for perpetuating “poverty, poor health, and shockingly high suicide rates” (1).
Thus, the historical roots of the causes of American poverty where these communities are concerned also cannot be ignored. Many of these historically oppressive practices have now become deeply embedded in the legal and justice system and continue to devastate the very communities for whom these laws were originally devised. Compounding the political and material impacts of poverty, those who are politically disempowered are also often socially ostracized. In this sense, a poor individual’s sense of self is eroded on all fronts – they experience a lack of food, water, schooling, shelter, representation, opportunity, and acceptance.
V. The Importance of Redefining American Poverty
The UDHR was drafted during a time when the world was, quite literally, sharply divided between the Western and Eastern blocs. Yet, as one of the document’s drafting members, Chile’s Hernán Santa Cruz articulated, “the supreme value of the human person…did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing” (12). In other words, international leaders had to understand the protection of human rights as a transnational issue and responsibility. By virtue of this understanding, a devaluation of any individual in any nation – including, and perhaps, especially in a nation bestowed with many resources and many capabilities – is inherently a human rights issue. Particularly as the United States positions itself as the flag-bearer of democracy and opportunity, its biggest contribution to the protection of human rights across the globe is to set an example by empowering and enriching communities in the domestic context. As such, on the national level, law-makers and policymakers alike must seek to redress historically-oppressive laws in addition to expanding access to eligible welfare recipients. Realistically, between bureaucratic challenges and changing political agenda, policy changes can be difficult to implement.
Change, however, can also be bottom-up. Indeed, social exclusion and political disempowerment is as degrading as going hungry is. Grassroots-level non-profit organizations, advocacy campaigns, and pro-bono legal aid organizations are thus pivotal in reshaping the narrative on poverty and involving community members in providing critical services such as professional development for formerly incarcerated individuals or after-school programs for low-income youth. And, indeed, while the scope of this report focuses on the United States, many of these findings can be extrapolated to other industrialized, Western countries where certain communities are increasingly economically and socially marginalized (e.g. immigrants and refugees). As the world becomes increasingly globalized, and transnational crises such as climate change or interstate war result in increased migration, many industrialized countries need to contend with creating a system that provides for the economic, political, and social enrichment of all individuals.
1. Alston, P. (2017, December 15). Statement on visit to the USA, by professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights*. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Retrieved from https://www.ohchr.org/en/statements/2017/12/statement-visit-usa-professor-philip-alston-united-n ations-special-rapporteur?LangID=E&NewsID=22533
2. Asian Century Institute. (2014, March 28). Amartya Sen on Development as Freedom. Asian Century Institute. Retrieved from https://www.asiancenturyinstitute.com/development/333-amartya-sen-on-developmentas-freedom
3. Foster, L. (2020). The price of justice: Fines, fee wane the criminalization of poverty in the United States. University of Miami Race and Social Justice Law Review, 11(1). https://repository.law.miami.edu/umrsjlr/ vol11/iss1/3
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6. Kelley, E. (2017, May 9). Racism & Felony Disenfranchisement: An intertwined history. Brennan Center for Justice. Retrieved from https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/racism-felony-disenfranchisement-inter twined-history
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14. Yeagley, R. M. (2020, November 9). Why Native American reservations are the most poverty-stricken lands in America: Rebekah May Yeagley. FEE Freeman Article. Retrieved from https://fee.org/articles/why-native-american-reservations-are-the-most-poverty-stricken-lands-in-a merica/