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An Outsider's View Of How the U.S. Treats Its Most Vulnerable


Philip Alston has spent the past two weeks traveling around the United States - first Washington, D.C., then Los Angeles, San Francisco, Alabama, Puerto Rico and finally West Virginia. The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but Alston wanted to understand how it is that 40 million Americans live in poverty. He is the United Nations' special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. And he's with us now. Welcome to the show.


MCEVERS: What were you looking for on your trip?

ALSTON: I was looking primarily to see the relationship between the civil rights, which the United States holds so dear, and poverty. In other words, if you live in poverty in this country, can you actually enjoy the civil and political rights which you are supposedly guaranteed?

MCEVERS: Just give us some examples of things you found in places like here in Los Angeles or in Alabama or in West Virginia.

ALSTON: To go to Skid Row in Los Angeles, to see the extent of it, the never-ending encampments and tents, the really grim circumstances under which people live. To go to Alabama to meet with people who live in areas that have no sewerage connection, and so their sewage is basically just pumped out into their gardens. Those sorts of things have a pretty big impact.

MCEVERS: In a presentation for the State Department today, you talked about something that I thought was really interesting. You said that you were struck by the extent to which caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between the rich and poor have been sold to people by politicians in the media. Just explain that a little bit.

ALSTON: So the rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic and the drivers of economic success. The poor, on the other hand, are wasters, losers and scammers. So as a result, money spent on welfare is money down the drain. Money devoted to the rich is a sound investment. The reality is that the United States now has probably the lowest degree of social mobility among all the rich countries. And if you are born poor, guess where you're going to end up - poor.

MCEVERS: Your findings were not all bad. You talked about some groups that you were in contact with that do some pretty great work. I wonder if you could give us some examples there.

ALSTON: I was very impressed by a lot of the community organizing that's going on in many places. I was very impressed by a voluntary health, dental, even psychological care clinic that I saw called West Virginia Health Right, which has no full-time doctors or dentists but relies on volunteer services from those communities and ends up seeing 21,000 patients a year.

MCEVERS: Do you think that groups like that are a solution to the bigger problem or they're just one piece of what needs to be more systemic changes?

ALSTON: I have to admit that sometimes I fear that such superb and much-needed initiatives, they are taking the pressure off the state. And the state can sort of sit back and say, well, there's no need in that area. It's being done by these guys.

MCEVERS: You have been around the world looking at this issue up close. You know, how does the U.S. compare?

ALSTON: Well, I think one of the most striking things is the lack of political will. I don't want to draw a comparison with China, but I did have to say when I was there that what was impressive was that Xi Jinping had made it a priority of his administration to eradicate extreme poverty. And when people said to me, oh, but he's just trying to keep control of the Communist Party, my response was, I think every politician is trying to keep control of government. And if others would dedicate themselves to eliminate poverty, then that would be great.

MCEVERS: Philip Alston is the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Thanks for your time today.

ALSTON: Thanks. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUSHOU.'S "SPIRIT.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.