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Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

Despite the US commitment to successive world declarations that emphasise the fulfilment of basic needs as a human right and the country's long history of fighting poverty with social security measures, a substantial section of the poor continue not to be covered by such schemes and welfare measures. These sections comprise those living in conditions of "extreme poverty", defined as a composite of income poverty, human development poverty and social exclusion. This article analyses various conditions of extreme poverty as presently seen in the US and suggests the need for programmes with a specific target focus and time-bound action.

Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

A Mission Report on the US


Economic and Political WeeklyApril 7, 20071299agreement that conditions of poverty are both a cause and conse-quence of the non-realisation of the rights guaranteed by inter-national human rights instruments. But to describe poverty, evenin its extreme form as a violation of human rights, one has togothrough several logical steps, which are not always transparentand straightforward.3 It would first be necessary to establish theeradication of poverty as a human rights entitlement with enforce-able obligations on identified duty-bearers, in a manner that thenon-enforcement of these obligations can be regarded a violationofhuman rights. The association between poverty and non-fulfilmentof human rights can be both constitutive and instrumental. Ifpoverty is identified with non-fulfilment of human rights in aconstitutive sense, a state without poverty would be equivalentto a state with basic freedoms, recognised as rights. Alternatively,poverty can be described as a condition that has been caused bythe non-fulfilment of human rights: when such human rights areviewed as instrumental in creating a state without poverty. Thesedescriptions differ not only in the nature of the characteristicsthatdefine poverty, but also in the recognition of human rights withtheir corresponding obligations. If poverty can be identified withnon-fulfilment of human rightsin itself, it becomes an obligationfor concerned states as well the international community thatrecognised these rights, to directly make their “best efforts” toremove it. The discussions wouldthen effectively centre aroundpolicies having the maximum impact on poverty eradication and,if such policies are not adopted, which agencies are responsibleoraccountable and what steps can be taken to compensate for theless than best efforts made by respective duty-bearers. If,however,poverty is not identified with non-fulfilment of human rightsbutwith the conditions created by their non-fulfilment, theobligationswould turn on the realisation of those rights. These may or maynot be sufficient to eradicate poverty, as there may be other factorsor instrumental variables that prevent poverty eradication. Thus,if human rights were the constitutive elements of a state of socialwelfare when there is no poverty, the corresponding obligationwould cover all policies necessary to eradicate poverty and notjust the fulfilment of human rights recognised in human rightslaws. Therefore, the human rights community would like to seepoverty as a violation or denial of human rights in the constitutiveand not in the instrumental sense.Today conditions of poverty are no longer an unsolvableproblem. Even in the short run, feasible policies exist by whichstates, through implementation of well designed domestic poli-cies and international cooperation, can eradicate poverty. Thesepolicies would often go beyond the fulfilment of just humanrights, but include institutional and technological reforms andmobilisation and redistribution of resources. When such feasiblepolicies exist, what is needed is to motivate the states to adoptthese policies as a binding legal obligation. That would surelybe facilitated by the recognition of a life without poverty as ahuman right, or, recognising the conditions of poverty asviolationsof human rights.To move beyond an ethical demand based on the moralclaims,towards recognising the removal of poverty as a humanrights entitlement, a social consensus has to be built. Mostmembers of the society should be willing to push their statesto accept the responsibility of adopting and following policiesto support the poor and the vulnerable. This would also implysome sacrifice and adjustment on the part of those who are notso poor.The US is one of those countries with a large number of policiesaddressed to ensure the removal of different dimensions ofpoverty. There is also very little doubt that if the parties reallywanted to remove poverty, the US has enough resources andinstitutional facilities to be able to do so efficiently and in fullmeasure. It is in that context that many human rights activistsfeel that if the claim is limited to removing conditions of extremepoverty in the first stage rather than pushing for the generalremoval of poverty, it will have a greater chance of generalacceptance.IPoverty in the USLegal and Institutional BackgroundThe US played a central role in the adoption of the UniversalDeclaration of Human Rights in 1948, which recognises the equalimportance of all human rights: civil, cultural, economic, politicaland social rights. The interdependence and indivisibility of allhuman rights were reaffirmed in the 1993 Vienna Declarationand Programme of Action, to which the US is a party. The USsigned but did not ratify the International Covenant of Economic,Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), however, it did ratify theCovenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which recog-nises the freedom from fear and want, which can only be achievedif conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his civiland political rights, as well as his economic, social and culturalrights. It has also committed itself to eliminating extreme povertyin a number of World Summit declarations, including the 1995Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development and the 2000Millennium Declaration.The federal constitution and statutes of the US are applicablenationwide and provide a minimum standard of guarantees forall persons. The laws of individual states may offer citizens noless if not greater protection of the civil and political rightsguaranteed by the US Constitution. The first ten amendments,known collectively as the Bill of Rights, provide for fundamentalcivil and political rights. While the main economic, social andcultural rights, as set forth in the ICESCR, are not guaranteedin federal law; a number of statutory entitlements play a rolein guaranteeing aspects of these rights.In one landmark decision, Goldberg vs Kelley (397 US 254)of 1970, the US Supreme Court held that welfare benefits werea “matter of statutory entitlement for persons qualified to receivethem. Their termination involves state action that adjudicatesimportant rights. The constitutional challenge cannot be an-swered by an argument that public assistance benefits are a“‘privilege’ and not a ‘right’”.However, it must be noted that the legislative tendencyoverthepast decade has been to reduce and limit such entitle-ments. For example, a number of welfare benefits ceased to beentitlements as a consequence of the 1996 reform of the publicsocial welfare programme. Similarly, the courts generally do notinterpret statutory entitlements in terms of rights and that thedoctrine of state immunity makes it difficult for individuals tobring cases concerning entitlements to public assistance benefitsto the courts.Government ProgrammesThe US has a long history of fighting poverty. PresidentFranklin D Roosevelt signed the country’s first Social SecurityAct in 1935 and later propounded an Economic Bill ofRights,including “the right to adequate medical care” and “theright to adequate protection from the economic fears of old
Economic and Political WeeklyApril 7, 20071300age,sickness, accident, and unemployment”. PresidentLyndonJohnson famously declared a “war on poverty”, under-lining that it was a war “the richest nation on earth can affordto win … [but] cannot afford to lose”. He stated in his 1964State of the Union address: “Very often a lack of jobs and moneyis not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause maylie deeper – in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chanceto develop their own capacities, in a lack of education andtraining, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack ofdecentcommunities in which to live and bring up theirchildren.”Despite some improvements over time, this war hasnot yet been won.The federal government currently provides assistance to needyfamilies and individuals through more than 80 means-testedprogrammes.4 These programmes provide cash and non-cashbenefits to families or individuals whose income falls belowdefined levels and who meet certain other eligibility criteria.Programmes are either entitlement programmes, accessible to allthose who qualify, or non-entitlement programmes whose par-ticipation is limited by the availability of resources. Some of themain programmes, accounting for over 50 per cent of annualfederal expenditure on assistance programmes, are brieflydescribedbelow:– Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is anon-entitlement programme providing cash benefits to needyfamilies. TANF was introduced as part of the 1996 welfarereform and replaced the open-ended entitlement programmeinplace since 1935. It is delivered through block grants thatgive states flexibility to design their own programmes in linewith overall objectives set out in federal law. TANF requiresstates to meet minimum levels of work participation. For ex-ample, half of families receiving assistance with TANF fundsmust be engaged in work-related activity for at least 30 hoursa week.– Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a refundable federaltax credit available to low-wage workers.– The Food Stamp Programme is a primary source of nutritionalassistance for many low-income persons, enabling them to buyfood with electronic benefit cards at food stores. Apart fromearning a low income, participants must be citizens or eligiblenon-citizens and register for work. All able-bodied individualsbetween the ages of 16 and 60 years without dependants musttake part in an employment and training programme. Othersprogrammes include the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) andthe Special Supplemental Nutrition Programme for Women,Infants and Children (WIC).– The Housing Choice Voucher Programme (“Section 8”)assists very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabledwith theirhousing needs. The programme subsidises rent forabout 2.1 million low-income households so that the recipientsdo not pay more than 30 per cent of their monthly income towardsrentand utilities.– Public housing provides rental housing for about 1.3 millionlow-income families, the elderly, and persons with disabilities;– Head Start provides developmental services for low-income,pre-school children aged 3 to 5 years, and social services fortheirfamilies.The various government programmes help raise somepeopleoutof poverty. As a recent analysis by the Centre forBudget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) shows, public income-support programmes in 2003 reduced the number ofAmericanswith disposable incomes below the poverty lineby47 per cent and reduced the severity of poverty byliftingtheaverage poor person from 29 to 57 per cent of thepoverty line.5In 1996, the public social welfare programme underwent amajor reform, including a series of measures under the PersonalResponsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act(PRWORA). The welfare reform was successful in movingmorepeople off welfare and into employment and the numberof people living below the poverty line decreased between1996and 2000. This positive outcome was facilitated by aperiodof strong economic growth, which started to slow downin the 2000s. While the national poverty rate in 2004 is belowits 1996 level, it has, however, been increasing since 2000.Moreover, a study by the Urban Institute shows an increaseafter1996 in the number of persons in single-parent familiesliving below 50 per cent of the poverty line. The study explainsthis increase by the fact that many single parents who movedinto the labour market did not earn enough to offset theincomelossresulting from the drop in food stamps and otherbenefits.6From the presentations of community groups and poor people,one would conclude that public assistance and social securityprogrammes often appear to be overly complicated and difficultto navigate thereby forcing community groups to act as inter-mediaries for available programmes. A member of a communitygroup in Mississippi expressed the view that “the State ofMississippi does not give welfare, but warfare, as families feelthat seeking social assistance is like a fight against all kinds ofobstacles, put up to discourage them”. The rules and the pro-cedures of the social security administration are difficult tounderstand and not easily accessible to elderly people and if aperson loses his/her public assistance for some reason, the processof appeal is long and difficult.This finding is confirmed by a number of studies. A 2001 reportof the Government Accountability Office (GAO) expressedconcern that “the nation’s assistance programmes for low-incomefamilies are too difficult and costly to administer andtoocomplicated for families to navigate”.7 A study by theUrbanInstitute points out that the 1996 welfare reform “madethe already complex safety net system even more difficult tonavigate”.8The 1996 welfare reform imposed stricter requirementsandeligibility rules for a number of social assistance pro-grammes,such as food stamps and housing vouchers. Forexample,the reform placed a five-year limit on TANFcashassistance andmademost legal immigrants ineligible forTANF-fundedprogrammes and Medicaid during their first fiveyears intheUS, and restricted their eligibility for food stampsandSSI.Despite stricter eligibility requirements, an Urban Institutestudy shows that poverty could be significantly reduced if morepeople participated in available public benefit programmes forwhich they qualify. The study conducted in 1998 showed thatextreme poverty rates decline, if there are more sources ofincome. For example, if food stamps are included as a part ofincome, there is a slight increase in the disposable income offamilies with children and a substantial increase, in case of singleparent families. A similar impact was also noted in cases ofextremely poor families that participated in the Medicaidprogramme, as they were able to minimise all out-of-pocketexpenses relating to health care. The study shows that fullparticipation in existing government assistance programmeswould reduce the number of people with a disposable incomebelow the federal poverty line by 20 per cent and the number
Economic and Political WeeklyApril 7, 20071301of those with an income below 50 per cent of the poverty lineby 70 per cent.9Measurement of PovertyThe US is one of the few OECD countries to have an officialdefinition of poverty, with published records since 1959 coveringa range of indicators on poverty and inequality. The federalpoverty measure issued by the US Census Bureau defines extremepoverty as income below 50 per cent of the poverty line. Thepoverty measure operates with 48 different indicators accordingto the size of the family, the number of dependent children, andages of family members. In 2005, the poverty thresholds were$9,973 for a single person under the age of 65 years, $12,755for a family of two, $15,577 for a family of three, and $19,971for a family of four.10 The United Nations Human DevelopmentIndex (HDI) is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy,education and standard of living for countries in the world. The2006 HDI places the US in the eighth position, in terms ofachieving these universally accepted standards of well being,behind countries like Norway, Iceland, Australia, Ireland, Sweden,Canada and Japan. Recent statistics of the US Census Bureaushow that the median household income was lowest amongAfrican American families ($30,558) and Hispanic families($35,967), which was 61 per cent and 71 per cent of the medianincome of non-Hispanic white families ($50, 784) respectively.Asian families had the highest median household income, amongthe racial groups ($61,094), which amounted to 120 per centof the median income of non-Hispanic white families. The medianhousehold income of foreign-born families (immigrants andnaturalised citizens) was $42,040, which was much lower thanthe median household incomes of other racial groups. It was seenthat families headed by a naturalised citizen experienced anincrease in median income ($50,030).11The official poverty line dates back to concepts and judgmentsmade in the 1960s, and its relevance in today’s US is a matterof debate. In August 2000, 40 prominent scholars sent an openletter to senior government officials stating that unless “wecorrect the critical flaws in the existing measure, the nation willcontinue to rely on a defective yardstick to assess the effects ofpolicy reform”.12 The poverty line was proposed by the USDepartment of Agriculture in 1961, using survey data from 1955.It sets the poverty threshold at three times the cost of a nutri-tionally adequate diet and makes appropriate adjustments forfamily size. This was adopted as the nation’s official povertyline in 1969 as part of the country, war on poverty. Over thelast 35 years, this definition of poverty, adjusted only for inflation,has been used to draw the line between the poor and the non-poor without reflecting changes in American society and thechanging perceptions of what constitutes a minimum acceptablestandard. As a 1995 report by a panel of experts appointed bythe National Academy of Sciences (NAS)/National ResearchCouncil concluded:The current measure needs to be revised: it no longer providesan accurate picture of the differences in the extent of economicpoverty among population groups or geographic areas of thecountry, nor an accurate picture of trends over time. The currentmeasure has remained virtually unchanged over the past 30 years.Yet during that time, there have been marked changes in thenation’s economy and society and in public policies that haveaffected families’ economic well-being, which are not reflectedin the measure.13Rather than cash income, the NAS panel and other researchershave suggested disposable income as a more adequate povertymeasure. Disposable income means family income after taxesand includes all cash income plus food stamps, school lunch,housing assistance, and energy assistance. A broad definition ofincome is necessary to capture the impact of non-cash benefitsand tax policy on poverty. This approach to measuring povertywhile more complete than the official measure is limited by thelack of available data. Many poverty experts believe that a revisedpoverty measure should reflect recent increases in out-of-pocketexpenses, such as medical and childcare expenses, althoughcurrently there is little agreement on how that should be done.Questions have also been raised about the approach used by theUS Census Bureau to estimate the value of particular benefits,as well as about whether the poverty line itself is out of dateand needs to be increased. Any attempt to redefine the officialpoverty measure should address these issues.Trends in Income PovertyThe long-term trend shows a decrease in poverty by 9.7 percent since 1959, the first year for which data is available. However,the incidence of poverty has, however, been rising over the pastfew years. According to the Census Bureau, 37 million people(12.6 per cent of the population) lived below the federal povertyline in 2005 and 2004, compared to 35.9 million in 2003,34.6million in 2002, 32.9 million in 2001 and 31.6 million in2000.14 Of a population of 37 million, 15.6 million, representing5.4 per cent of the total population, lived below 50per cent ofthe poverty line (ie, in “extreme poverty” as definedby theCensus Bureau), up from 14 million in 2002. According to thesefigures, nearly one in every 20 Americans and one in every 10American children are living in extreme poverty.15The statisticsshow large disparities in poverty betweenregions, racial groups,genders, and age groups, as outlined below.Race: Census Bureau statistics (2005) show a significant disparityin income poverty between African Americans (24.7 per cent),Hispanics (21.8 per cent) Asian Americans (11.1 per cent) andnon-Hispanic Whites (8.3 per cent).16 In 2004, 11.4 per centof African Americans (3.2 million) and 7.9 per cent of Hispanicshad incomes less than 50 per cent poverty threshold, comparedto the national average of 5.4 per cent.17 Equally, according tothe statistics of the federal department of Housing and UrbanDevelopment (HUD), African American and Hispanic house-holds account for 20 per cent each of the about 5.18 million verylow-income households, which experience worst-case needs,defined as “unassisted renters with very low incomes (below 50per cent of area median income) who pay more than half of theirincome for housing or live in severely substandard housing”;18The fact that disparities persist despite strong anti-discriminationlegislation underlines the need to look at not only the law butalso at the unequal opportunities and other underlying causes ofracially disparate poverty outcomes.Age: Income poverty is significantly higher among children(34.9 per cent of those living in poverty and 25 per cent of thetotal population). From 1981 to 1997, child poverty was around20 per cent, declining to 16.2 per cent between 1997 and 2000,and then increasing again, reaching 17.6 per cent (12.9 millionchildren) in 2004.19 This compares to poverty rates of 11.1 percent (20.5 million) for all people between the age group of 18-64years and 10.1 per cent (3.6 million) for people aged 65 yearsand above. The poverty rate is particularly high amongchildrenunder the age of six (20 per cent and 4.8 million).20In2004, the poverty rate among African American children was
Economic and Political WeeklyApril 7, 20071302significantly higher than children of other races (33.2 per centor over4million).Gender: In 2005, the poverty rate for families decreased to 9.9per cent from 10.2 per cent, comprising almost 7.7 millionfamilies. Of all family groups, poverty is highest among thoseheaded by single women. In 2005, 28.7 per cent of all female-headed families (4 million families) were poor, as compared to5.5 per cent of married-couple families (3.2 million families) and13 per cent of single male-headed families (6,69,000 families).21In 2004, it was recorded that the figures were even higher incase of AfricanAmerican female-headed families, at 39.5 percent (or 5.2 million).Geography: The poverty rate varies by region and withinregions. In 2005, it was greatest in the south, at 14 per cent, andlowest in the northeast and midwest, at 11.3 and 11.4 per centrespectively.22 Adjoining states may have radically differentlevels of poverty. Between 2001 and 2003, the poverty rate inthe state of Maryland was 7.7 per cent – yet in the adjacent districtof Columbia, it stood at 17.3 per cent. The poverty rates alsodiffered between the metropolitan residential areas and suburbanresidential areas. The suburbs have much lower poverty rates(9.3per cent), as compared to principal cities of metropolitanareas (17 per cent) and areas outside the metropolitan region(14.5per cent).23Trends in Human Development PovertyThough there has been overall economic progress in theUSand long-term trends indicate a (slow) decline in incomepoverty, available data indicate that the incidence of otherdimensions of poverty, including food insecurity, health insur-ance coverage, and homelessness, has been on the rise over thepast years.Food insecurity: The federal department of agriculture reportedthat the number of people living in food-insecure householdswas 12.6 million in 2005, accounting for 11 per cent of allhouse-holds and lower than 11.9 per cent of food insecure US house-holdsin 2004.24 4.4. million households (3.9 per cent)weresuffering from very low food security but in most of thesefamilies, the children were “protected from substantial reductionsin food intake”, except in 2,70,000 households (0.7 per centhouseholds with children) where the food intake of one or morechildren was reduced.25 Food insecurity was much more preva-lent in households with incomes below the poverty line (36 percent), those headed by single women (30.8 per cent), thoseheadedby single men (17.9 per cent), African American (22.4per cent) and Hispanic (17.9 per cent).26 Overall, food insecurityin households with children is at about double the rate comparedto those without children (15.6 per cent vs 8.5 per cent).Geographically,food insecurity was higher in the southern andwestern regions than in the midwest and northern areas andmetropolitan areas in principal areas (13.5 per cent) recordedhigher prevalence of food insecurity than suburban areas(8.7percent).27Health: The US, contrary to other wealthy countries, does nothave a universal health insurance system.Healthcare spendingin the US is increasing by more than 7 per cent annually andthe average annual cost of family health insurance in employ-ment health plans, including employer and employee contribu-tions was more than $10,880 in 2005, which is more than theaverage annual income of a full time, minimum wage worker.28According to the Census Bureau, 15.7 per cent (45.8 million,including 8.3million children) were without health insurancecoverage in 2004, showing an increase from 45 million in 2003.In 2004, the percentage and number of people covered bygovernment health insurance programmes increased from26.6percent to 27.2 per cent. The Institute of Medicine alsoestimates that the aggregatecosts to uninsured people due tolow productivity and lost years of life resulting from poor healthis $65 to $130 billion each year.29 Within this macro data,there are wide differentials in health insurance by differentgroups. The statistics also show a significant disparity in un-insured rates between non-Hispanic Whites (11.3 per cent);African Americans (19.7 per cent) and Hispanics (32.7 per cent).Moreover, the likelihood of being uninsured varies considerablyamong states, ranging from 8 per cent in Minnesota to 25 percentin Texas.Statistics of the US department of health and health servicesshow that the “poor” and the “near poor” (ie, with incomes below200 per cent of the poverty line) are much more likely to beuninsured and have poorer health, than those with higher incomes.It was observed that poverty is often the cause of poor healthbecause of its connection with inadequate nutrition, substandardhousing, exposure to environmental hazards and decreased accessto healthcare services.30 A government report, ‘Health, UnitedStates, 2006’ notes that persons below the age of 65 years withlow incomes do not have health insurance throughout the year.Adults were also more likely to be uninsured than children belowthe age of 18 years, because children from low-income house-holds are eligible for public programmes like the State Children’sHealth Insurance Programme (SCHIP).31The US leads the world in healthcare spending. On a per capitabasis, the US spends twice the average expenditure of the OECDcountries on healthcare. Yet, its public health indicators aremarred by deep inequalities linked to income, health insurancecoverage, race, ethnicity, geography and access to healthcare.For example, the infant mortality rate is now higher for the USthan for Malaysia – a country with an average income one quarterof the US. The Indian state of Kerala has an urban infant deathrate lower than that for African Americans in Washington DC.Inequality in health outcomes are staggering: a baby boy froma family in the top 5 per cent of the US income distribution willenjoy a life span 25 per cent longer than a baby boy born inthe bottom 5 per cent.32In February 2006, the budget reconciliation law, ie, the DeficitReduction Act (DRA) was passed by the federal governmentbringing about some fundamental changes to many aspects ofthe Medicaid programme incorporated as mandatory procedures,making qualification or enrolment to the programme moredifficult.33For instance, the citizenship documentation require-ment, which came into effect in July 2006, requires Americansto provide proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate orpassport to qualify for Medicaid and therefore, every person hasto prove their citizenship or immigrant status before enrolmentinto Medicaid.34In the fiscal budget for 2007, the federal government recognisedthe inadequacies of the present healthcare system and proposedcertain changes to make healthcare more affordable and acces-sible. The proposal aims at shifting insurance costs away fromthe government and employer to the individual consumer. It isbelieved that Americans are overusing healthcare services andthe focus of these proposals is to move the consumer into theprivate insurance market so that they can shop for cheaper care.The budget seeks to cut federal healthcare programmes and
Economic and Political WeeklyApril 7, 20071303proposes more cuts to Medicaid and Medicare and shifting morecosts to the states.35Homelessness:One of the most extreme forms of poverty inthe US is homelessness.There are no recent national studies ofthe number of homeless, but based on a 2001 study, it is estimatedthat 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of whom are children, arelikely to experience homelessness in a given year.36 Homelessnessin the US is not a fringe issue, but a real risk and a source ofinsecurity and vulnerability for many persons who can be definedas suffering from extreme poverty.Homelessness especiallyexacerbates the conditions of poverty for children. Accordingto the National Centre for Homeless Education, “at least 20 percent of homeless children do not attend school. Within a year,41 per cent of homeless children will attend two different schoolsand 28 per cent will attend three or more different schools. Witheach such change in the school, a student is set back academicallyon average by four to six months”.37A survey conducted by theNational Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and the National LawCentre on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) studied theincreasing criminalisation of homelessness in major cities of theUS. The survey, conducted in 67 cities across the US, finds thatthere are more laws targeted at homeless persons, with a 12 percent increase in laws prohibiting begging in certain public placesand a 14 per cent increase in laws prohibiting sitting or lyingdown in certain public places.38 The major cities criminalisinghomelessness are Atlanta, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago,New York City and Los Angeles, among others.39 The surveyalso revealed that most cities do not have adequate shelters tomeet the needs of homeless persons. A survey conducted by USConference of Mayors released in December 2005 revealed that71 per cent of the 24 cities surveyed by them had a 6 per centincrease in shelter requests, 14 per cent of overall requests werenot met and 32 per cent of requests from homeless personswerenot met.40Social ExclusionThe data on poverty and the long-term trends indicate thatpoverty rates vary depending on gender, race, ethnicity, andimmigration status.A study by the Brookings Institution shows that “despiteimprovements in the 1990s, nearly every major American citystill contains a collection of extremely poor, racially segregatedneighbourhoods. In cities as diverse as Cleveland, New York,Atlanta, and Los Angeles, more than 30 per cent of poor blackslive in areas of severe social and economic distress. Theseneighbourhoods did not appear by accident. They emerged inpart due to decades of policies that confined poor households,especially poor black ones, to these economically isolatedareas.The federal government concentrated public housing insegregated inner-city neighbourhoods, subsidised metropolitansprawl, and failed to create affordable housing for low-incomefamilies and minorities in rapidly developing suburbs, cuttingthem off from decent housing, educational, and economicopportunities.Lack of public transport aggravated the conditionsof unemployment”.41Segregated communities, especially African Americans, haveaccess to public schools with poor facilities and infrastructure.In Mississippi, children still reach the eighth grade – the lastcompulsory school grade – without being able to read and write,and the education system had clearly failed these children. MaureenD Taylor, representing an organisation called Michigan WelfareRights Organisation, testified at the National Truth Commissionthat more and more families are leaving Detroit because ofeconomic depression and lack of employment opportunities. Thepublic schools have been taken over by corporate houses andthe educational facilities in the city have shrunk. School dropoutrates have risen to 66 per cent. The state government gaveARAMARK, one of the largest food suppliers in the world, thecontract to supply food to schools in the city and they suppliedlow quality food items to students and the governing body ofthe public schools have extended ARAMARK’s contract, insteadof terminating it.Racial disparities in poverty outcomes are striking in the US.As the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination(CERD) stated in its concluding observations: “While notingthe numerous laws, institutions and measures designed toeradicateracial discrimination affecting the equal enjoyment ofeconomic, social and cultural rights, the committee isconcernedabout persistent disparities in the enjoyment of, inparticular, the right to adequate housing, equal opportunitiesforeducation and employment, and access to public andprivatehealthcare.”42 Eric Cavitt, a licensed social studiesteacherfrom Minneapolis, Minnesota, observed that economicand social problems served as a barrier to his education. Thepublic school system failed to develop his educational skills andhe had to dropout. He pointed out the problems of the publicschool system. He has observed that the public school systemcreates large and impersonal school spaces with limited mean-ingful interactions between students and teachers. Educationalopportunities are unequal for the rich and poor. Students fromlow-income families are in great need of breakfast and lunchfacilities, literacy and community support and study skillsinstruction. The public school system has ignored these specialneeds of students from low-income families and those belongingto racial minorities. Racial minorities are increasingly nowopposed to the public education system, due to continuousoppression and discrimination and the state lacks the politicalwill to change the system.CERD also noted with concern that “the majority offederal,stateand local prison and jail inmates in the state partyare members of ethnic or national minorities, and that theincarceration rate is particularly high with regard to AfricanAmericans and Hispanics”.43 According to the Department ofJustice, more than 40 per cent of the total 1.5 million prisoninmates are African American and 8.4 per cent of all blackmalesbetween the ages of 25 and 29 years were in prison in2004. (The incarceration rate is also high among Hispanics,accounting for 19 per cent of the prison total.) In Louisiana andMississippi, which has the country’s highest and third-highestper capita incarceration rates, several persons noted that childrenwho did not do well at school were almost expected to end upin prison.Immigrant families are also in a particularly vulnerablesituationand experience a higher rate of poverty. Whilealmostallchildren of immigrants have a parent who works, theirparents are 50 per cent more likely than natives to earn lessthanthe minimum wage and less likely to receive employerprovided benefits.44 A recent study shows that “the povertyrateof children in immigrant families is 21 per cent, as against14per cent for children in native-born families.45 Nearly halfof the children in immigrant families have family incomesbelow200 per cent of the poverty line, compared with only34per cent of native children. It is estimated that more than
Economic and Political WeeklyApril 7, 20071304half of the poor or “near poor” (ie, below 200 per cent of thefederal poverty line) in California are immigrants, as are aboutone-third of them in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas andArizona.46II‘Hurricane Katrina’A Window on Extreme Poverty in the US What seems evident is that poverty in the US is not anindividual issue, but rather a systemic problem of inability toparticipate in economic and social activities in a meaningful way.The poor are insecure and vulnerable and this insecurity is mostevident in the cases of Hurricane Katrina (2005). The deprivedwere largely groups that were extremely poor (as per the defi-nition adopted for this report) and unable to cope with naturaldisasters and external shocks.Hurricane Katrina, which hit Louisiana on August 29, 2005,spurred a national debate on poverty and race in the US. TheFederal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has estimatedthat 3,00,000 families were destroyed, nearly 1,600 killed andabout a million displaced by the hurricane. Some peoplestillremain unidentified, more than a year and a half after thedisaster.The areas affected are among the poorest in the USandmost of the affected populations were uninsured. The dis-placed have been rendered jobless and have lost employmentbenefits, thus, increasing the poverty rates in the affected areas.Katrina also led to one of the biggest scams and bureaucraticbungles, representing almost 11 per cent of the total $19 millionspent by FEMA on relief measures or 6 per cent of the totalallocation.47Katrina had brought the existing poverty in New Orleans intothe limelight. It was the poor and elderly or disabled people –both black and white – who were hit the hardest by Katrina. Theevacuation plan adopted by the state was discriminatory and wasin complete violation of the principle of non-discrimination underArticle 6 of ICCPR. The plan made a distinction between persons/families with personal vehicles and almost 19 per cent of NewOrleanians, many of whom African Americans, who did not ownvehicles were excluded from the plan. With 73 per cent of thoseaffected being African Americans, in effect, the evacuation planwas also, discriminatory, in terms of race.48Evacuees complained about a general lack of information aboutgovernment programmes available to assist Katrina victims. Acongressional enquiry into the relief measures found that manydeaths and the suffering faced by many thousands of people werecaused by the inability of the state to evacuate in time the NewOrleans area.49 The state government was aware of the threatof floods in the city of New Orleans because it is situated belowsea level and the levees protecting the city are not strong enoughto withstand large storms. Although, the state government wasable to evacuate 1.2 million residents in New Orleans who ownedpersonal vehicles,50it was unsuccessful in taking preventivemeasures to withstand a storm of the dimension of Katrina,whilebeing fully aware that it is likely to hit the area. The USstands in violation of the right to life, under Article 6, ICCPR,which is a non-derogable right, even in situations of nationalemergencies.Even before Hurricane Katrina hit, greater New Orleans wasone of the most troubled metropolitan areas in the nation. Thecity of New Orleans had high rates of segregation and rapidlyrising poverty: by 1970, 26 per cent of the population lived inpoverty and a large part in extreme income poverty. The areahad one of the lowest median household incomes in thecountry:at$35,317, the metro area ranked 96th out of the 100largest metropolitan areas in 2000. While the entire city sufferedfrom a low median household income, low educationalattainmentrates, and low labour force participation, the AfricanAmerican population (84 per cent of the city’s poor) sufferedeven more. An estimated 46 per cent of children who were livingin flooded areas came from single parent homes and significantlymore people lacked access to a car.51 The burden of the naturaldisaster fell largely on those who were exposed on many frontsdue to their existing poverty, groups of the poor who had notransport or money and who were old, infirm and with medicalconditions.Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath and the impact ofhurricanesthat followed have raised serious questions regardingthe status of economic, social and cultural rights in the US.Katrinaproved to be a wake up call for both the government andcommunities.Poverty in Other AreasThis section records the reactions gleaned from interviewswithdifferent vulnerable groups and their representatives inHarlem, New York, Immokalee, Florida, Jackson and the Deltaregion in Mississippi and in the Appalachian region of Kentucky.Their testimonies clearly indicated the existence of conditionsof extreme poverty and the failure of public authorities to dealwith these problems.Groups of homeless persons and representatives from localcommunity complained that immigrant workers from developingcountries came to the US to escape poverty in their home coun-tries, even at the risk of their lives. But when they arrived inthe US, they have to live in expensive and crowded apartments,often with 10 to 15 people in one apartment. These apartmentshad damaged ceilings, no heat, old refrigerators and stoves, andwere full of rats and cockroaches. The restaurant workers in NewYork often have to work 60, 70, 80 hours a week, and even ifthey are sick, they cannot be absent. They seldom get paid theminimum wage. In some places they have to survive only withtips. White people usually get more opportunities even if theyare not qualified for the job. People of colour are stereotypedas people who can only do the hard jobs.The community groups alleged that there were over 2,00,000domestic workers in New York City, mostly immigrants fromthird world countries, and they received no sick leave, no paidvacation, no healthcare, and were often fired if they got sick orpregnant. Working between 11 and 16 hours a day, they livedand worked in slave-like conditions, excluded from the mostbasiclabour protections.Members from the National Mobilisation Against Sweat Shops(NMASS), representing low-income, immigrant and native bornpeople working as home attendants, garment workers, construc-tion workers, office workers and restaurant workers, petitionedthat they had to work under inhuman conditions for little moneyand no health insurance and that immigrant workers were blamedfor taking jobs away from other citizens. Laws related to employersanctions were seen to create an underground economy wheredocumented workers competed against other undocumentedworkers who could be hired at considerably lower costs. It wassuggested that repealing such laws would eliminate the employerpreferences for undocumented workers, even if it would notprevent the exploitation of these workers. People stayed in shelters
Economic and Political WeeklyApril 7, 20071305for long periods because they could not afford an apartment evenwith the amount they could get in housing assistance.At Immokalee, Florida, farm workers mainly from Mexico,countries of central America and Haiti worked in the prosperousagriculture industry of the US. Most of them were single men,living during the harvest season, in wooden shacks and trailerhomes that, despite their substandard quality, cost up to $1,200per month. Twelve to 15 people would live in one trailer, sleepingin shifts to save money. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers,which campaigns for fair wages for farm workers, maintainedthat farm workers were often held as bonded labourers or slaves.They worked for long hours without minimum wages, benefits,vacations and the right to organise.The average salary of day-labourers was between $7,000 and$7,500 a year. Undocumented workers earned even less, between$2,500 and $5,000 a year. In a good year, a tomato picker couldearn up to $8,000 to $9,000, which was still below the federalpoverty line of $9,827. The farm workers were paid by the piece-rate and needed to pick over one and a half tonnes of tomatoesto earn a daily wage of $50. The number of dairy farms in Kansashas according to a Truth Commission testimony fallen from24,500 in 1965 to 900 in 2005. The corporatisation of agricultureis primarily responsible for the decline in dairy farming. Farmers’suicides are on the rise and depression, addictions and divorcesin farming families are becoming increasingly common.Low wages push people to work hard. The minimum wagelaw provides that workers who work 10 hours a day and did notearn a minimum salary of around $ 60 a day have a right to bepaid the difference by the employer. But often this does nothappen in practice. Farm workers do not have the right to formtrade unions or to go on strike; they were routinely exposed todangerous toxins in the fields and did not get any kind of benefitsor sick leave. The farm workers stated that around 83 per centofagricultural workers nationally do not have healthcare coverage.The extent of racial segregation in other parts of the city andsuburbs in the Jackson and Delta region of Mississippi was alsoclearly visible. Highly impoverished African Americanneighbourhoods surrounded the affluent business districts andhigh rise office buildings in the city centre, and low-income blacksuburbs were adjacent to white suburbs which tended to be moreaffluent, middle class neighbourhoods. In the most impoverishedareas, people lived in rented, trailer-like shacks. Unemploymentwas high and wages were low.The African Americans living in the poor neighbourhoodscomplained of harassment by the police, who were seeminglykeeping these areas under surveillance. After Louisiana andTexas, Mississippi has the highest incarceration rate in the US,and a disproportionate number of those incarcerated areAfricanAmericans.The cotton fields and catfish processing areas in the Deltaregion were characterised by households of poor AfricanAmericans who did back-breaking work, earned miserably lowwages and experienced stark segregation, with lower achieve-ment levels of children in schools. In the poor African Americancommunities, roads had potholes and homes were mainly “shot-gun” houses, owned by absentee white landlords. Some of thepoorest households did not have light, water or electricity andpeople often had to live together in big families to survive. Moneywages had been stagnant for several years, thus real wageshavein effect fallen. Many people did not get adequate food ornutrition. They also lacked transportation to get to work, whichwas only available at locations, long distances apart. Only alimited number of people qualified for Medicaid and even thosewho received it, could not pay for many prescriptions. The elderlywere particularly disadvantaged and the state was cutting downon Medicaid programmes, saying the programme was broke.Another issue was the criminalisation of the African Americanyouth and poor people. A number of persons complained thatthe police did not apply the same standards to children of richand influential people and those of poor families, and that thegovernment would take public assistance away if any person ina family household had a drug-related conviction. Anothercomplaint was that processes set up to address grievances didnot work properly and that poor persons did not have the financialresources for investigation or litigation. Moreover, lack of infor-mation was said to prevent poor people from accessing remedies.In the Appalachian region of Kentucky, poverty affected mostlythe white Americans. Most people, complained about limitedaccess to healthcare. Medicaid programmes provided care onlyfor those living below the federal poverty line and those whowere unable to work because of disabilities. The state wasproposing cuts even in the Medicaid programme. The modestlypoor, who had little money left after meeting their subsistenceneeds also needed access to healthcare. Proposals were made foruniversal, free health coverage at least at a minimum levelcovering a list of most common diseases. Apart from a lack ofemployment opportunities in the region, the working poor earnedsalaries that did not provide for a decent living. Minimum wageshad not been adjusted to increasing costs of living since 1997.For people working on minimum wages, the cost of transportationwas another serious problem. Public transport was limited andtoo expensive. The case of Amy Bolt is particularly interestingin this context. Amy was diagnosed with lung cancer in January2006 and had no health insurance. She was ineligible for federalassistance as she was working. She was eligible for childcareassistance which was subsequently cut off, on the pretext thatshehad hidden her pay raise of $82 per month from the state.Thestate also imposed a penalty of $1,800 on her for receivingchildcare during the said period. Amy was completely bankruptand had to sell her house to pay her medical bills. The state alsothreatened legal action against her if she was unable to pay thedues. In Bill and Brenda Hawn’s case, Brenda had to undergoan intestinal transplant and Medicaid covered her medical costs.But they did not know that they had exceeded their insurancecap,until they were in debt of $ 58,000. Medicaid did not informthemthat they had exceeded their insurance cap and although, Brendapassed away in early 2006, her medical bills remained uncleared.Several persons complained about the negative environmentand impact of coal mining, and how poor people were particularlyaffected. Besides their health, their homes were also often damagedby the dynamite blasts. It is quite ironic to note the paradox ofthe region, one of the poorest in the US, while at the same timebeing one of the richest in natural resources. People living inthe region did not benefit from the underground wealth, ownedand extracted by the coal companies.ConclusionI was not able to visit all vulnerable areas. In particular, I regretnot being able to visit the Native American populations. Also,moredetailed studies are needed to seriously address these problems.However, the issues raised in the preceding sections are illus-trative of some of the problems facing poor persons in the US.Extreme poverty, defined as a composite of income poverty,human development poverty and social exclusion, is not onlya problem of poor developing countries, but a phenomenon that
Economic and Political WeeklyApril 7, 20071307 Tony Atkinson’s ‘Social Exclusion, Poverty and Unemployment’inSocial Exclusion, Employment and Opportunity, Working Paper No4, Chapter 1, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, London Schoolof Economics and Amartya Sen’s ‘Social Exclusion: Concept, Applicationand Scrutiny’, Social Development Papers No 1, Office of Environmentand Social Development, Asian Development Bank, June 2000andFather Wresinsky’s paper on ‘Basic Security’, titled ‘Grande pauvreteet precarite economique et sociale’ in the journal Avis et Rapport duConseil Economique et Social, 1987.3These issues have been discussed in full in my first report as independentexpert, on extreme poverty, Human Rights Commission Ref No E/CN4/2005/49,February 11, 2005.4United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), ‘Means-testedProgrammes – Information on Programme Access Can Be anImportant Management Tool’, March 2005, at Sherman, ‘Public Benefits: Easing Poverty and Ensuring MedicalCoverage’, Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, August 2005, at R Zedlewski, Linda Giannarelli, Joyce Morton, Laura Wheaton,‘Extreme Poverty Rising, Existing Government Programmes CouldDoMore’, Urban Institute, April 2002, at States Government Accountability Office (GAO), ‘Means-testedProgrammes Determining Financial Eligibility Is Cumbersome and CanBe Simplified’, November 2001, at Institute, op cit, 2002.9Ibid.10US Census Bureau, ‘Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coveragein the United States: 2005’, August 2006, at Census Bureau, ‘Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coveragein the United States: 2004’, August 2005, at Corak, ‘Principles and Practicalities in Measuring Child Povertyfor the Rich Countries’, UNICEF, Innocenti Working Paper No 2005-01, February 2005, p 17, at, p 17.14US Census Bureau, 2006, op cit.15Nell McNamara and Doug Schenkelberg, ‘Extreme Poverty andHumanRights: A Primer, Heartland Alliance for Human Needs andHuman Rights and Mid America Institute on Poverty’, 2006 at Census Bureau, 2006, op cit.17US Census Bureau, 2005, op cit.18United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)‘Affordable Housing Needs: A Report to Congress on the SignificantNeed for Housing’, Annual Compilation of Worst Case Housing NeedsSurvey, December 2005, at Census Bureau, 2006, op cit.20Ibid.21Ibid.22Ibid.23Ibid.24Mark Nord, Margaret Andrews and Steven Carlson, ‘Household FoodSecurity in the United States, 2005’, United States Department ofAgriculture, Economic Research Report No 29, November 2006, at‘Poor People’s Economic Rights Campaign’, Health Insurance Fact Sheet,2006.29Wilhelmine Miller, Elizabeth Richardson Vigdor and WillardGManning,‘Covering the Uninsured: What Is It Worth?’, HealthAffairs, March 31, 2004, at States Department of Health and Human Services, ‘Health, UnitedStates 2006’, National Centre for Health Statistics, 2005.31United States Department of Health and Human Services, ‘Health, UnitedStates 2006’, National Centre for Health Statistics, 2006, at,Human Development Report, 2005, international cooperation ata crossroads: aid, trade and security in an unequal world, at USA, Medicaid Alert (DRA), February 2006, at See also, FamiliesUSA, Medicaid Alert: Overview: Medicaid and the Deficit ReductionAct101, February 2006, at USA, Medicaid: ‘Citizenship: Millions Must Now ProveCitizenship to Keep Medicaid Coverage’, February 2006, at USA, The Bush Administration’s Fiscal Year 2007 Budget:Analysis of Key Healthcare Provisions, February 22, 2006, at States Department of Health and Human Services, 2005, op cit.37See National Coalition for the Homeless, ‘How Many People ExperienceHomelessness?’, Fact Sheet No 2, June 2006, at Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and National Law Centreon Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), ‘A Dream Denied: TheCriminalisation of Homelessness in US Cities’, January 2006, at United States Conference of Mayors, 2005, Hunger and HomelessnessSurvey, December 2005, at Berube and Bruce Katz, ‘Katrina’s Window: Confronting Concen-trated Poverty across America’, The Brookings Institution, October 2005,at, Concluding observations of CERD on the United States ofAmerica, August 14, 2001, A/56/18, para. 398, at,paras.380-407.En?Opendocument43 Ibid, para 395.44See Kinsey Alden Dinan, ‘Efforts to Promote Children’s EconomicSecurity Must Address Needs of Hard-working Immigrant Families’,National Centre for Children in Poverty, Mailman School of PublicHealth, Columbia University, October 2005, at, Children in Immigrant Families, February 25, 2005, at A Camarota, ‘Immigrants at Mid-decade – A Snapshot of America’sForeign-born Population in 2005’, Centre for Migration Studies,December2005.47‘Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign’, Katrina Fact Sheet,2006.48US Human Rights Network, Hurricane Katrina and Violations ofInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 6 (right tolife) and Article 26 (prohibition against discrimination): A Response tothe Third Periodic Report of the United States of America, July 2006,at’s Council on Integrity and Efficieny (PCIE) and ExecutiveCouncil on Integrity and Efficiency (ECIE), Oversight of Gulf CoastHurricane Recovery: A 90-Day Progress Report to Congress, Decemberat Human Rights Network, Hurricane Katrina and Violations ofInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 6 (right tolife) and Article 26 (prohibition against discrimination): A Response tothe Third Periodic Report of the United States of America, July 2006,at Muro, Rebecca Sohmer et al, ‘New Orleans after the Storm: Lessonsfrom the Past, a Plan for the Future’, Metropolitan Policy Programme,The Brookings Institution, October 2005, at

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