Feelings of “American exceptionalism” remain strong in the U.S., but the nation has become exceptional in “problematic ways,” according to Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

“Instead of realizing its founders’ admirable commitments, today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights,” he stated. “As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.”

Millions remain impoverished in the U.S. despite the nation’s significant wealth, power and technology because such abundance is not being used effectively to help people in need.

Running a comparison and contrast analysis between the U.S. and other nations, Alston found “a relatively clear picture of the contrast between the wealth, innovative capacity and work ethic of the U.S., and the social and other outcomes that have been attained.”

A few highlights from this assessment include:

  • U.S. healthcare expenses are double the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average, yet the nation’s “infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world” and “the U.S. has the highest prevalence of obesity in the developed world.”
  • The rate of child poverty (18 percent of all U.S. children in 2016) is “the highest among the six richest countries – Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Norway,” and “the youth poverty rate … is the highest across the OECD.”
  • The U.S. has “the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries.”
  • The U.S. incarceration rate is “nearly 5 times the OECD average” and is the highest in the world.

“Successive administrations, including the present one, have determinedly rejected the idea that economic and social rights are full-fledged human rights, despite their clear recognition not only in key treaties that the U.S. has ratified (such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), which the U.S. has long insisted other countries must respect,” Alston said. “But denial does not eliminate responsibility, nor does it negate obligations.”

The report also emphasized many positive initiatives that were observed.

Examples included “state and especially municipal officials … determined to improve social protection for the poorest 20 percent of their communities,” a “community health initiative in Charleston (West Virginia)” and “a Catholic Church in San Francisco (St Boniface – the Gubbio Project) that opens its pews to the homeless every day between services.”

“There is no magic recipe for eliminating extreme poverty, and each level of government must make its own good faith decisions,” Alston emphasized. “But at the end of the day, particularly in a rich country like the U.S.A., the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power. With political will, it could readily be eliminated.”

The full report is available here.

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