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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, January 11, 2018 1:00 am

A dismal portrait of a pair of Americas

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is an essayist and poet living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This column was written for the Progressive Media Project.

I want to tell you a story about a nation that has done an above-average job of eliminating extreme poverty. It's a nation you would presume had accomplished those goals, judging by its behavior.

The nation just passed a huge tax break for its most wealthy citizens. Big corporations and millionaires will receive the most relief. The ruling political party plans to pay for these tax breaks, which will add trillions of dollars to the national deficit, by cutting services utilized by its poorest citizens.

I have another story. It's about a nation that was recently subjected to a poverty investigation by the United Nations. An investigator toured the nation's troubled areas, engaging in fact-finding and poverty analysis. The U.N. report found:

• The nation suffers from a huge wealth gap between the rich and the poor, while the poor lived shorter and sicker lives than the citizens of any other major Western democracy.

• A shockingly high number of its 40 million poor citizens were children and youth. The country suffered the highest child poverty and infant mortality rates in the developed world.

• It scored lower than any comparable nation in income mobility. People who are born poor are more likely to live and die poor than in “any of the rich countries.”

Both of these nations are the United States of America.

The service cuts eyed by Congress will come to programs called “entitlements.” They include Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The poverty investigation was recently conducted by an official U.N. monitor, Philip Alston. He spent two weeks visiting several cities. He found that the United States often provided less care for its most vulnerable residents than he has witnessed in the so-called Third World.

Alston visited homeless camps in Los Angeles, where authorities promised to help prevent new outbreaks of hepatitis C by providing toilets for the homeless. Alston observed that there are presently a mere nine toilets available for nearly 2,000 of the homeless.

That's a ratio well below what is mandated by the U.N. for its Syrian refugee camps.

In rural Alabama, where impoverished African-Americans live, Alston observed sewage problems so great that some areas were experiencing outbreaks of hookworm disease. Hookworm – still found in Africa and Asia – was assumed to have been eradicated in the United States decades ago. He also saw “houses in rural areas that were surrounded by cesspools of sewage that flowed out of broken or non-existent septic systems.” State health officials had no idea of the scope of the problem nor any plan to deal with it.

In stories and statistics, Alston's report presents a shocking portrait of mass unemployment, child poverty and homelessness in America – at this time when Republicans are determined to cut social services for those who need them most.

“The proposed tax reform,” he writes, “stakes out America's bid to become the most unequal society in the world, and will greatly increase the already high levels of inequality between the richest 1 percent and the poorest 50 percent of America.”

This conclusion will not surprise many struggling Americans, who continue to see earnings shrink, housing costs boom and the number of the homeless people in their cities rise. The reality of pervasive economic anxiety in America seems to be a big secret only in Washington.