The haunting images of African Americans stranded in New Orleans are powerful evidence of the fate of the dispossessed in today’s United States. The extent of the divide between rich and poor was clearly shown during a recent visit to the United States by Arjun Sengupta, independent expert on human rights and extreme poverty of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
The U.S. was chosen for the visit to illustrate that poverty is a worldwide problem, regardless of a country’s gross domestic product, and that it should be more seriously addressed.
Sengupta visited six different states, going to poverty-stricken urban areas, and holding consultations with groups of homeless people and with several national civil-society organizations. From meetings held with both workers and unemployed people, he was able to analyze the impact of poverty on the poorest sectors of the population.
Although there are several federal and state social-benefit systems in the U.S., a variety of obstacles, such as the high cost of health care and the lack of adequate housing, leads people further into poverty and becomes an abuse of their human rights. Official statistics show that 12.7 percent (or 37 million) of the population in the U.S. lived in poverty in 2004, while 15.7 percent (45.8 million) lacked health-insurance coverage; 11.9 percent of households (comprising 38.2 million people, including 13.9 million children) experienced food insecurity.
It is estimated that 33 million Americans continue to live in households without an adequate supply of food. According to statistics from the Bread for the World Institute, 3.5 percent of U.S. households experience hunger (9.6 million people, including 3 million children.) Children are a disproportionate share of the poor in the U.S. Although they are 26 percent of the total population, they constitute 39 percent of the poor.
UNICEF states that although the U.S. is still the wealthiest country on Earth, with income levels higher than any other country, it also has one of the highest incidences of child poverty among the rich, industrialized nations. Denmark and Finland have child-poverty levels of less than 3 percent, and are closely followed by Norway and Sweden, thanks to higher levels of social spending. In the U.S., 17 percent of children live in poverty.
Minority young children have significantly higher poverty rates than white children. For example, the poverty rate for young black and Hispanic children under age 3 is three times higher than that of white children. Statistics show poverty levels of 24.7 among African Americans, 21.9 percent among Hispanics and 8.6 percent among non-Hispanic whites.
Poverty has been recognized as one of the most powerful factors that can affect children’s brain development. As poor children grow into adolescence and adulthood, they are more likely to drop out of school, have children out of wedlock, and be unemployed.
Poverty is a multi-causal problem that demands different approaches. Several factors — such as poor education, discriminatory practices against minorities, limited job opportunities, racism, unstable family life, mental illness and substance abuse — contribute to poverty. Limiting the impact of poverty and eventually eliminating it, therefore, demands acting on all these factors.
The U.S. has enough economic, technical and social resources to abolish poverty. What is seriously needed to solve this problem is political will and a strong commitment to human-rights principles.
President Bush has stated that he wants to strengthen the “ownership society.” The best way to do it is by responding to the most basic needs of America’s poor.
Dr. César Chelala is an international public-health consultant and the author of “Children’s Health in the Americas,” a publication of the Pan American Health Organization. Seattle Times