Updated | A United Nations official investigating poverty in the United States was shocked at the level of environmental degradation in some areas of rural Alabama, saying he had never seen anything like it in the developed world.
"I think it's very uncommon in the First World. This is not a sight that one normally sees. I'd have to say that I haven't seen this," Philip Alston, the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told Connor Sheets of AL.com earlier this week as they toured a community in Butler County where "raw sewage flows from homes through exposed PVC pipes and into open trenches and pits."
The tour through Alabama's rural communities is part of a two-week investigation by the U.N. on poverty and human rights abuses in the United States. So far, U.N. investigators have visited cities and towns in California and Alabama, and will soon travel to Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.
Of particular concern to Alston are specific poverty-related issues that have surfaced across the country in recent years, such as an outbreak of hookworm in Alabama in 2017—a disease typically found in nations with substandard sanitary conditions in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, as reported by The Guardian.
The U.N. investigation aims to study the effects of systemic poverty in a prosperous nation like the United States.
According to the Census Bureau, nearly 41 million people in the U.S. live in poverty. That's second-highest rate of poverty among rich countries, as measured by the percentage of people earning less than half the national median income, according to Quartz.
These income and wealth disparities affect minorities the most. Black, Hispanic, and Native American children, for example, are two to three times more likely to live in poverty than white kids, according to a study using Census data by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Minorities in the United States have also historically had higher rates of unemployment, worked longer hours, and gotten paid less than their white counterparts on average, as reported in a 2013 article in The Atlantic that analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics stretching back to 1975.
Economic inequality and racial discrimination have also been linked with civil rights abuses, particularly in Alabama and other states across the South. Police shootings of unarmed black men and women are also of deep concern to the U.N.
Alston, who's also a law professor at New York University, said in a statement announcing the start of the U.N. investigation that poverty in the U.S. has been overlooked for too long.
“Some might ask why a U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights would visit a country as rich as the United States," Alston said. "But despite great wealth in the U.S., there also exists great poverty and inequality.”
Alston also pointed out that the U.S. "has been very keen" on other countries being investigated by the U.N. for civil and human rights issues.
"Now, it's the turn to look at what's going on in the U.S.," Alston said. "There are pretty extreme levels of poverty in the United States given the wealth of the country. And that does have significant human rights implications.”
Despite these concerns, the Republican Party, which controls all three branches of the federal government, is on course to pass a tax bill before the end of the year that will increase the federal deficit by $1 trillion in 10 years—costs that GOP leaders have said will be offset by reducing an already-weakened social safety net.
For Alston, these political decisions are at the root of systemic poverty in the U.S.
“The idea of human rights is that people have basic dignity and that it’s the role of the government—yes, the government!—to ensure that no one falls below the decent level,” he said. “Civilized society doesn’t say for people to go and make it on your own and if you can’t, bad luck.”
“Politicians who say, ‘There’s nothing I can do about that’ are simply wrong,” Alston told WKMS 91.3 FM, a public radio station in Kentucky near one of the other sites under investigation by the U.N.
This article removes an extraneous reference to President Donald Trump.