Global Ethics Forum: Extreme Poverty in the United States, with the UN’s Philip Alston

Global Ethics Forum: Extreme Poverty in the United States, with the UN’s Philip Alston

(upbeat music) – Welcome to Ethics
Matter, I’m Stephanie Sy. Our guest is Philip Alston,
the special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human
rights for the United Nations. He is also a professor at the New York
University School of Law. Philip, thank you so
much for joining us here at the Carnegie Council. I understand that you
recently spent two weeks exploring places of
poverty in the US. Give us the context
for poverty in America and why you decided
to focus on the US at this time when there
are so many pockets of deep poverty
all over the globe. – There are many pockets
of deep poverty everywhere. The United States, first of all, has a very significant
poverty rate, over 14% by its own count. That makes 40 million
people in the United States. That’s a very
significant number. Second, the United
States is very important because unlike almost
any other country it doesn’t really
want to acknowledge the societal responsibility to those who are
living in poverty. It’s got a
go-it-alone-type mentality. Thirdly, the US is an example
to many other countries. The US tends to be
mimicked or imitated by a lot of other countries. I come from Australia. What I see in Australia
right now is the mimicking of American approaches
to poverty alleviation. – Let’s get into what
you saw where you went. You started off on the
West Coast, in California, which is one of the richer
states in the United States, but you followed
homelessness in those places. What did you see
that surprised you? – First, just a little
bit of background. I, as UN special rapporteur,
the idea is that all countries in the world agree to
be held accountable in some way for their
human rights performance. So a country like the
United States is very keen to hold China, Russia,
Vietnam, Cuba, you name it, to account in terms of their
human rights performance. But the deal at the UN
is that all countries are held to account in some way. So this particular exercise
was a way of saying well, it’s now the
United States’ turn, and the focus is going
to be on the relationship between poverty and what
Americans call civil rights. I then spent two weeks, which
is a very short period of time for this sort of
enterprise but rather large in diplomatic terms to be
putting a country under scrutiny for that period of time, and
I traveled from California across to Puerto Rico with
various stops in between. As you said, I began
essentially on the West Coast, and my focus there was
mainly on homelessness. So I went to Skid Row in Los
Angeles, and I went up to the Tenderloin District
in San Francisco. In each of those
places what I saw was pretty stunning in a way. It’s surprising because I’ve
seen a lot of very grim poverty around the world, but
to go to a country like the United States,
which is very wealthy, and then to a city
like Los Angeles, which is particularly
affluent in so many ways, and see within a stone’s
throw, literally, of the central business
district 50 blocks which is covered with
tents, encampments, people on the sidewalk and
so on, with no real access to toilets, to showers,
to running water, and so on was really
quite extraordinary. – And you saw similar
scenes in San Francisco. Skid Row, I’m from Los
Angeles-has been there forever, since I was a kid. I understand you met with
local, state officials. What was their explanation
for why homelessness remains so entrenched in
parts of California? – On the one hand, there is
this sense that homelessness will always be with us, that
there’s nothing we can do, in fact the more we do, the
more we’re just going to attract people from all over, and
so all we can do is just to keep things humming along
at a very minimal level. The reality, though,
is that the policies that are being
pursued rely primarily on two wonderful institutions,
prisons and emergency rooms, not on the building of homes. In other words, what’s
developed is this sort of cycle of poverty, homelessness,
criminality where the homeless are getting increasingly
irritating to the well-off. So what they’re doing in
a lot of municipalities is to pass new ordinances which
criminalize certain aspects. So it becomes a crime to
sleep on the sidewalk, maybe a crime to
sit on the sidewalk. It’ll be a crime
to sleep in a park. It’ll certainly be a crime
to urinate in public. Public urination ain’t
a pretty picture, but what does one do
if there are absolutely and determinedly no
toilets provided, and there aren’t in LA. What then happens is that
these people are ticketed. They are given a fine. Now the fine looks pretty small. They don’t have
1/100th of that amount, and of course they can’t pay it. After a very short
period of time, the fine then starts to
increase significantly. They’re then called to court. They don’t go to court because
they do not want to leave their possessions on the
street, where they’ll disappear. They’ll be picked
up by the council, they’ll be put in a compactor. They don’t go to court. They are then guilty
of a misdemeanor, and at a certain
point the next arrest will take them to prison. They’ll spend time in prison. When they get out, they’ll have
lost all their possessions, of course, but what
they will have gained, which is really great,
is a criminal conviction. They then can’t get
work and are ineligible for a lot of housing. It’s perfect. It’s the lovely cycle, and
it begins all over again. – Sort of reversing
a little bit, and I know you spent actual
time with these people, did you see trends or patterns in what landed them in these
situations in the first place? – I think it varies. I think we have a stereotype
of a homeless person who generally fell
into drugs, alcohol, maybe prostitution, or whatever, and life has never looked up. But that’s not at all
the exclusive background. A lot of these
people once had jobs. A lot of them have
mental illness, but that doesn’t
mean that they are, to use the colloquialism, crazy, it means that they
suffer mental illness just as a very large proportion
of the normal population do, but their mental illness
has made it very difficult for them to get work,
and at a certain point they’ve just fallen
off the cliff. – Would you say it was bad
luck in a lot of cases? – I wouldn’t try to characterize
it, I think because, the conservatives will always
say this is moral failure. I unfortunately think
that most of us are guilty of some moral failures,
whether it’s alcohol, whether it’s just, there’s
whole range of ways. And the fact that the moral
failings of some people leads them to be homeless
doesn’t turn it into just bad luck, but
it also doesn’t mean that it’s something
that they deserve. – Isn’t it a moral
failing, some could argue, for a society not to address
the needs of these people? – This is the sort of
realization that I came to, surprisingly because I
should’ve realized this earlier, but I came to the
realization on this trip, that when I look at
a homeless person, and as a middle-class,
law-abiding, white
citizen I think, this person is not very clean,
doesn’t smell very nice. I don’t really want them
around my neighborhood. Of course, instead of looking
at them and thinking that, what I should do is
exactly what you say, look at them and say: my
god, this is a failing of the society in which I live. Is this the best we can do? Every society has people
who are down and out, but the challenge is to
be able to assist them and treat them with
humanity, and we don’t. We look away. We don’t want to see them, we don’t want to talk to them,
and we certainly don’t want to factor them into our
broader policy analyses. – Is that something
that you think is unique to American values and culture, or do you think in other
places in which you’ve explored poverty and homelessness
you see a similar disdain and stereotyping of the poor? – I think both, in a way. In other words, I don’t
think I go anywhere where people really
welcome the homeless, those who haven’t showered
for weeks or months or whatever, with open arms. So America is not
unique in that respect. But America is
unfortunately exceptional in the sense that there
is a widespread belief that if you can’t
make it on your own, that if you can’t make use
of what Americans think of as equality of opportunity, there is no residual
responsibility upon the society. There is no sense of compassion,
and there is no sense that the purpose of
government is precisely to ensure a basic
minimum condition of life for everyone who
lives in the country. The current thrust of
official policy is the reverse of the insights of the New
Deal and all the assumptions that came with that, which
were that government has a role in regulating the economy both
at the top and at the bottom. In other words,
businesses cannot thrive unless government is regulating
the market in such a way as to facilitate and promote
entrepreneurship and so on. That’s still happening. Despite all of the rhetoric,
the government structures the market, creates
the opportunities, and facilitates business. But at the lower end, the
assumption of the New Deal also was that government
had a role to look after those who the capitalist
system leaves in its wake. The capitalist system
cannot and never will look after the worst off. That’s just the way it is, and
so government has that role. But we’re moving now to
assume that government shouldn’t do that, that
government shouldn’t provide any services, that all the
basics should be privatized. And what that means is that
you have a large percentage of the population who are
increasingly neglected, who don’t have access to
the really essential care and education and so
on that they need. – Tell me some of the other
places that you visited. I understand you
were in Alabama, which is one of the poorest
states in the union. I read that there you
saw examples of poverty that were quite shocking,
open sewage systems. Describe in a little
bit more detail what you witnessed
and what struck you. – It’s interesting because I
think in developed countries we don’t tend to think of
sewage systems as an issue. – No, it’s almost
taken for granted. – We assume that by
the end of the 19th the beginning of
the 20th century, one of the great achievements
was running water and sanitation systems. What’s really interesting
to me is that right now in India there’s a huge campaign to provide effective
sanitation systems for everyone in the country. India has a very big problem of what they call
open defecation. They realize this has
enormous health consequences, and so there is a
government-run campaign with vast amounts
of money being spent to try to provide
sanitation for all. I go to Alabama, and I
discover that outside of the main cities most
places don’t have any government-provided
sewage systems. What they have is their
own septic tank system, but because the soil is
very hard in much of Alabama the costs can easily
mount to $30,000 to install a septic system. If you’re living in poverty
as many Alabamans do, you certainly can’t
afford $30,000. You may then have a
very elderly septic tank which doesn’t function, or
you simply don’t have one, and you have what they
call a straight pipe. A straight pipe
goes straight out into maybe a nearby stream
if you’re really lucky, but more likely into
the back garden. So what I saw are these sort
of cesspools around houses where the sewage is
just flowing out. I asked health authorities:
can you give me an estimate? What percentage of people in
the state don’t have access? Couldn’t really tell you that. Okay, so do you have
a program where you’re sort of trying to
progressively extend? Oh, no. No, no, no. There are grants from
the USDA for people if they want to apply for them, but it’s quite time-consuming, and I guess not many
people really do apply. So what are you doing about it? Well, I mean, it’s not
our responsibility. Of course, that encapsulates it. My sense is that governments have a variety of
responsibilities. Conservatives of course
will agree that security is absolutely essential,
national security, external, but internal security,
policing and so on, governments must provide that. But clearly governments
also have to provide basic infrastructure,
and infrastructure is not just airports and
roads and so on. Infrastructure is enabling
people to get access to water, enabling them to have
access to sanitation, and enabling them to
have access to things like decent schools and
basic health care facilities. – Do you view the 40 million
people in this country that are living in
poverty, 20 million of whom live in deep poverty, as
collateral damage of capitalism, of a political system
that has failed them? – I think it is both. Certainly capitalism. I’m not opposed to capitalism. I think we have probably got
to the stage where we accept that it is the only system
that really generates maximum wealth, rewards
initiative, and so on. But no one who has studied
capitalism has ever believed that it is capable of
providing for the worst off. It leaves people in its wake. It is competitive, it drives,
and it is designed to move on. So the supplement, which is
indispensable for capitalism, is precisely to have a sort
of government-sponsored floor. But what’s happening there is that there isn’t
the political will. There’s no doubt in my
mind that the persistence of poverty in any country, but
certainly in a rich country like the United States,
is a political choice. If governments wanted
to eliminate poverty, they could do so tomorrow. They have chosen not to. – And that goes back to that
cycle of who is the electorate and who within the electorate
is disenfranchised. We could get into big
money and politics and all sorts of issues, but
I want to get into remedies with our remaining time. And one thing I know that
you’ve been researching, and a lot of academics seem to
be buzzing about this phrase, universal basic income. Why don’t you lay out for
our viewers what that is. – Universal basic income is a
self-described utopian notion that’s actually been
around since Utopia, Thomas More’s book, but
many authors coming from all different types of
political perspectives have proposed that
society should base itself on providing a basic
income to every person in the community, which would
be a comprehensive grant, it would be universal,
it would be in cash, it wouldn’t be conditional. It has a lot of
attractions in the sense that every individual will
have a certain amount of money at their disposal. It is not going to be
enough for them to live a good life on, it is going
to be enough to subsist on. But it is going to give them
the platform, the foundation, on which to build a better
life if they want to. If they do not want to, as
one of the main proponents has argued, they can go
and surf their life away and do nothing else. They will be living on a
very tiny amount of money, but the society would be better
off not to try to force them to work, not to have the big
bureaucracy that’s checking on them every
minute of every day, to instead give them
a certain dignity, to affirm that we are a
society that looks after all of our people. So the idea of a universal
basic income has always been supported by a range of
philosophers and others, but it’s now becoming
much more interesting to the hard-nosed economic
types because what we’re seeing, and it’s no surprise that the
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are at the head of much of
this, what we’re now seeing is the potential for
radically lower levels of productive employment
in our societies. As robots start to
accomplish ever more jobs on factory floors, in
warehouses, and so on, as we move toward driverless
transportation systems, cars, and so on, there simply
aren’t going to be the jobs available at those
lower levels of skill, and people are concerned. First, that it’s going
to be dehumanizing because people
will be unemployed. Secondly, it’ll be
socially problematic because if you have a lot of
very poor unemployed people it’s not a good recipe. And third, it’s economically
unproductive because you don’t have a consumer base to
buy all the electronics and other products that
are being developed. So there are increasing
numbers of people, Mark Zuckerberg, for example,
came out in an address at Harvard University basically
endorsing the concept, saying that we need to
explore whether we can provide this sort of basic
income grant to everyone. – It’s a very interesting
ideology behind the concept, just when you think
of human dignity. I want to take this back
to your journey in places of deep poverty in the
US, because the concept of a universal basic income
partially is based on this idea that people do want to work,
that most people will not just take the universal
basic income and decide to surf their lives away. Did you find evidence of that
in the people that you met, that these were people
who did want to work, and there just simply
weren’t the opportunities that you and I have discussed
in this conversation? – The United States is
a country of workers. There’s a real work ethic. I met a number of people who
are doing two or three jobs, and the ones who were
most heartbreaking were the ones who said:
look, I work full-time and I have a second job,
and I can’t live on it. It’s not enough. There are many employees
of Walmart, for example, who work full-time, but
they receive food stamps. In other words, their
income levels remain so low that they are eligible
for government support to provide basic foodstuffs. What I found was a
real desire to work, but simply there’s
not work available. And there’s a great irony
because the conservative side of politics these days is all
about we’ve got to move people off welfare and into employment. But there aren’t the jobs,
certainly not at that level of skill, and the government
is not paying to retrain these people, it’s not
putting money into trying to create any sort
of decent jobs. So to the extent that
there are jobs available, they are very low-paying,
which is fine ironically by the people who
have to do them, but they are not
enough to live on. So you need to have the
welfare system again even to prop up that part
of the employment market. – It is a very dismal
picture you paint, Philip, between the social, criminal,
political challenges that face people not just living
in poverty in this country but that may eventually
face a lot more people as the economy moves
toward more automation. What optimism and what hope
would you leave people with? – The thing about the
United States is that it really is exceptional in
good ways as well as bad. It’s exceptional in
terms of its work ethic, it’s exceptional in terms
of its wealth levels, it’s exceptional in
terms of its creativity. I think my hope is that
there will come a time where a new social
compact will be seen as the best way forward,
not only in the interests of those living in poverty,
but more importantly in order to generate a more
productive society. The World Bank, the
IMF, everyone else, all say that extreme inequality
is economically inefficient. So what America needs to
realize is that in addition to that inefficiency, the
other inefficiency, of course, is treating poor people
through the prison system and the hospital system. That’s vastly more
expensive than to set up the sort of basic welfare
nets that are really desired. So what we need is a
more rational debate, a more evidence-based
policymaking approach which accepts the fact
that providing the basics, providing universal
basic health care, providing decent
schools, and so on, is a much more
economically as well as socially productive
way forward. The United States can easily
take the lead on that. It doesn’t get the United
States into a socialist economy, it just becomes a
rational market-driven
capitalist economy. – Philip Alston, thank you
so much for your insights. (upbeat music) – [Announcer] For
more on this program and other Carnegie Ethics
Studio productions, visit There you can find video
highlights, transcripts, audio recordings, and
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by the Carnegie Ethics Studio and viewers like you.

14 thoughts on “Global Ethics Forum: Extreme Poverty in the United States, with the UN’s Philip Alston

  1. the US has no safety net to speak of .. they look down on anyone going thru rough times as a loser … we spend 700 billion around the world on military ….have no easy way to any type of health prevention. care.. basically we are a nation of greed and corporate welfare… with 60 million in tax breaks to the top 1 percent yearly…. so who pays for military spending… ?… no one that is why we are 21 trillion in debt … so are the next generation thousand in collage load debt which will have consequences down the road for their retirement ….and now takes us to baby boomers retiring… most are looking to van life to make ends meet some say they choose that…. but .. what chose do we really have … sit and look at four wall till you die cause at 1000.00 a month there is not much living in that Reagan help to start the ball rolling.. but the last generation ( boomers) gave away all fighting power we had with unions that built the middle class …most homeless got there because there is no hope

  2. The Trump administration is going to make this situation much worse. The Irony is many in his base are teetering on the edge of this very same tragic situation.

  3. I've barely started this and my heart is already broken about the plight of the homeless. I hope I can dredge up the guts to finish it

  4. Is the decriminalization of poverty a moral hazard? Is universal healthcare a moral hazard? Perhaps everyone matters. Sanitation for everyone matters. Health and nutrition matters. Education matters. Perhaps the moral hazard is dehumanizing the poor and treating the poor and mentally ill as less than human is a moral hazard that makes America truly exceptional among developed nations. Very sad and saddening. Instead we subsidize corporations that pay low wages with ER hospital services and incarceration which comes with extraordinary public expenses that.are hidden from view and beyond mention.

  5. How can interviews on topics which affect everyone negatively, only get a few thousand views, and barely a conversation in the comments!! Come on people, get off your asses!!! #poverty #PhilipAlston #politics #corruption #dignity #humanity

  6. The UBI will enshrine the disempowerment of working people by preserving the pool of economically excluded people to which employers can banish non-compliant workers, which is why it is supported by the billionaire class. The Job Guarantee model is resisted by the rich because it provides the otherwise unemployed with a higher standard of living, thus greater security for working people seeking to negotiate a fairer share of the wealth the future economy will produce.

  7. American political system is depending on capital driven structure at a very high level. Chinese, We, call this moneytocracy. This UN guy criticizes USA's extreme poverty while he denies to challenge USA's political system design. smh. So what he believes is to adjust a little bit. But sorry sir, nothing could be done in this system when you talk about the extreme poverty, because the people with money pay little attention on poor people. And money buys power, and power will defend itself.

  8. We have lots of low-level skilled jobs available in the US! That is why we are fighting for open borders! We need the workers. Yes, we should force NO ONE to work!

  9. Did he say he was “middle class”? Seriously? I would bet you this guy lives in a gated community. University of Queensland 2017 “Water, Sanitation, and hygiene in remote Indigenous Australian communities. Go read it sir!

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