A journey through a land of extreme poverty: welcome to America

The UNs Philip Alston is an expert on deprivation and he wants to know why 41m Americans are living in poverty. The Guardian joined him on a special two-week mission into the dark heart of the worlds richest nation

Los Angeles, California, 5 December

You got a choice to make, man. You could go straight on to heaven. Or you could turn right, into that.

We are in Los Angeles, in the heart of one of Americas wealthiest cities, and General Dogon, dressed in black, is our tour guide. Alongside him strolls another tall man, grey-haired and sprucely decked out in jeans and suit jacket. Professor Philip Alston is an Australian academic with a formal title: UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

General Dogon, himself a veteran of these Skid Row streets, strides along, stepping over a dead rat without comment and skirting round a body wrapped in a worn orange blanket lying on the sidewalk.

The two men carry on for block after block after block of tatty tents and improvised tarpaulin shelters. Men and women are gathered outside the structures, squatting or sleeping, some in groups, most alone like extras in a low-budget dystopian movie.

We come to an intersection, which is when General Dogon stops and presents his guest with the choice. He points straight ahead to the end of the street, where the glistening skyscrapers of downtown LA rise up in a promise of divine riches.

Heaven.

Then he turns to the right, revealing the black power tattoo on his neck, and leads our gaze back into Skid Row bang in the center of LAs downtown. That way lies 50 blocks of concentrated human humiliation. A nightmare in plain view, in the city of dreams.

Alston turns right.

Philip
Philip Alston in downtown LA. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

So begins a two-week journey into the dark side of the American Dream. The spotlight of the UN monitor, an independent arbiter of human rights standards across the globe, has fallen on this occasion on the US, culminating on Friday with the release of his initial report in Washington.

His fact-finding mission into the richest nation the world has ever known has led him to investigate the tragedy at its core: the 41 million people who officially live in poverty.

Of those, nine million have zero cash income they do not receive a cent in sustenance.

Alstons epic journey has taken him from coast to coast, deprivation to deprivation. Starting in LA and San Francisco, sweeping through the Deep South, traveling on to the colonial stain of Puerto Rico then back to the stricken coal country of West Virginia, he has explored the collateral damage of Americas reliance on private enterprise to the exclusion of public help.

The Guardian had unprecedented access to the UN envoy, following him as he crossed the country, attending all his main stops and witnessing the extreme poverty he is investigating firsthand.

Think of it as payback time. As the UN special rapporteur himself put it: Washington is very keen for me to point out the poverty and human rights failings in other countries. This time Im in the US.

David
David Busch, who is currently homeless on Venice beach, in Los Angeles. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian


The tour comes at a critical moment for America and the world. It began on the day that Republicans in the US Senate voted for sweeping tax cuts that will deliver a bonanza for the super wealthy while in time raising taxes on many lower-income families. The changes will exacerbate wealth inequality that is already the most extreme in any industrialized nation, with three men Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet owning as much as half of the entire American people.

A few days into the UN visit, Republican leaders took a giant leap further. They announced plans to slash key social programs in what amounts to an assault on the already threadbare welfare state.

Look up! Look at those banks, the cranes, the luxury condos going up, exclaimed General Dogon, who used to be homeless on Skid Row and now works as a local activist with Lacan. Down here, theres nothing. You see the tents back to back, theres no place for folks to go.

California made a suitable starting point for the UN visit. It epitomizes both the vast wealth generated in the tech boom for the 0.001%, and the resulting surge in housing costs that has sent homelessness soaring. Los Angeles, the city with by far the largest population of street dwellers in the country, is grappling with crisis numbers that increased 25% this past year to 55,000.

Ressy Finley, 41, was busy sterilizing the white bucket she uses to slop out in her tent in which she has lived on and off for more than a decade. She keeps her living area, a mass of worn mattresses and blankets and a few motley possessions, as clean as she can in a losing battle against rats and cockroaches. She also endures waves of bed bugs, and has large welts on her shoulder to prove it.

She receives no formal income, and what she makes on recycling bottles and cans is no way enough to afford the average rents of $1,400 a month for a tiny one-bedroom. A friend brings her food every couple of days, the rest of the time she relies on nearby missions.

She cried twice in the course of our short conversation, once when she recalled how her infant son was taken from her arms by social workers because of her drug habit (he is now 14; she has never seen him again). The second time was when she alluded to the sexual abuse that set her as a child on the path towards drugs and homelessness.

Given all that, its remarkable how positive Finley remains. What does she think of the American Dream, the idea that everyone can make it if they try hard enough? She replies instantly: I know Im going to make it.

A 41-year-old woman living on the sidewalk in Skid Row going to make it?

Sure I will, so long as I keep the faith.

What does making it mean to her?

I want to be a writer, a poet, an entrepreneur, a therapist.

Ressy
Ressy Finley, who lives in a tent on 6th Street in Downtown LA. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

Robert Chambers occupies the next patch of sidewalk along from Finleys. Hes created an area around his tent out of wooden pallets, what passes in Skid Row for a cottage garden.

He has a sign up saying Homeless Writers Coalition, the name of a group he runs to give homeless people dignity against what he calls the animalistic aspects of their lives. Hes referring not least to the lack of public bathrooms that forces people to relieve themselves on the streets.

LA authorities have promised to provide more access to toilets, a critical issue given the deadly outbreak of Hepatitis A that began in San Diego and is spreading on the west coast claiming 21 lives mainly through lack of sanitation in homeless encampments. At night local parks and amenities are closed specifically to keep homeless people out.

Skid Row has had the use of nine toilets at night for 1,800 street-faring people. Thats a ratio well below that mandated by the UN in its camps for Syrian refugees.

Its inhuman actually, and eventually in the end you will acquire animalistic psychology, Chambers said.

He has been living on the streets for almost a year, having violated his parole terms for drug possession and in turn being turfed out of his low-cost apartment. Theres no help for him now, he said, no question of making it.

The safety net? It has too many holes in it for me.

Of all the people who crossed paths with the UN monitor, Chambers was the most dismissive of the American Dream. People dont realize its never getting better, theres no recovery for people like us. Im 67, I have a heart condition, I shouldnt be out here. I might not be too much longer.

That was a lot of bad karma to absorb on day one, and it rattled even as seasoned a student of hardship as Alston. As UN special rapporteur, hes reported on dire poverty and its impact on human rights in Saudi Arabia and China among other places. But Skid Row?

I was feeling pretty depressed, he told the Guardian later. The endless drumbeat of horror stories. At a certain point you do wonder what can anyone do about this, let alone me.

And then he took a flight up to San Francisco, to the Tenderloin district where homeless people congregate, and walked into St Boniface church.

What he saw there was an analgesic for his soul.

San Francisco, California, 6 December

The
The Gubbio project at St Boniface in San Francisco. The church opens its doors every weekday at 6am to allow homeless people to rest until 3pm. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian


About 70 homeless people were quietly sleeping in pews at the back of the church, as they are allowed to do every weekday morning, with worshippers praying harmoniously in front of them. The church welcomes them in as part of the Catholic concept of extending the helping hand.

I found the church surprisingly uplifting, Alston said. It was such a simple scene and such an obvious idea. It struck me Christianity, what the hell is it about if its not this?

It was a rare drop of altruism on the west coast, competing against a sea of hostility. More than 500 anti-homeless laws have been passed in Californian cities in recent years. At a federal level, Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who Donald Trump appointed US housing secretary, is decimating government spending on affordable housing.

Perhaps the most telling detail: apart from St Boniface and its sister church, no other place of worship in San Francisco welcomes homeless people. In fact, many have begun, even at this season of goodwill, to lock their doors to all comers simply so as to exclude homeless people.

As Tiny Gray-Garcia, herself on the streets, described it to Alston, there is a prevailing attitude that she and her peers have to contend with every day. She called it the violence of looking away.

Coy
Coy Catley, 63, in her homeless box made of cardboard sheets on a sidewalk of Tenderloin, San Francisco. Photograph: Ed Pilkington for the Guardian


That cruel streak the violence of looking away has been a feature of American life since the nations founding. The casting off the yoke of overweening government (the British monarchy) came to be equated in the minds of many Americans with states rights and the individualistic idea of making it on your own a view that is fine for those fortunate enough to do so, less happy if youre born on the wrong side of the tracks.

Countering that has been the conviction that society must protect its own against the vagaries of hunger or unemployment that informed Franklin Roosevelts New Deal and the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. But in recent times the prevailing winds have blown strongly in the youre on your own, buddy direction. Ronald Reagan set the trend with his 1980s tax cuts, followed by Bill Clinton, whose 1996 decision to scrap welfare payments for low-income families is still punishing millions of Americans.

The cumulative attack has left struggling families, including the 15 million children who are officially in poverty, with dramatically less support than in any other industrialized economy. Now they face perhaps the greatest threat of all.

As Alston himself has written in an essay on Trumps populism and the aggressive challenge it poses to human rights: These are extraordinarily dangerous times. Almost anything seems possible.

Lowndes County, Alabama, 9 December

Aaron
Aaron Thigpen discusses the poor sewage conditions in Butler County. Improper treatment has put the population at risk of diseases long believed to be extinct in the US. Photograph: Bob Miller for the Guardian


Trumps undermining of human rights, combined with the Republican threat to pare back welfare programs next year in order to pay for some of the tax cuts for the rich they are rushing through Congress, will hurt African Americans disproportionately.

Black people are 13% of the US population, but 23% of those officially in poverty and 39% of the homeless.

The racial element of Americas poverty crisis is seen nowhere more clearly than in the Deep South, where the open wounds of slavery continue to bleed. The UN special rapporteur chose as his next stop the Black Belt, the term that originally referred to the rich dark soil that exists in a band across Alabama but over time came to describe its majority African American population.

The link between soil type and demographics was not coincidental. Cotton was found to thrive in this fertile land, and that in turn spawned a trade in slaves to pick the crop. Their descendants still live in the Black Belt, still mired in poverty among the worst in the union.

You can trace the history of Americas shame, from slave times to the present day, in a set of simple graphs. The first shows the cotton-friendly soil of the Black Belt, then the slave population, followed by modern black residence and todays extreme poverty they all occupy the exact same half-moon across Alabama.

There are numerous ways you could parse the present parlous state of Alabamas black community. Perhaps the starkest is the fact that in the Black Belt so many families still have no access to sanitation. Thousands of people continue to live among open sewers of the sort normally associated with the developing world.

The crisis was revealed by the Guardian earlier this year to have led to an ongoing endemic of hookworm, an intestinal parasite that is transmitted through human waste. It is found in Africa and South Asia, but had been assumed eradicated in the US years ago.

Yet here the worm still is, sucking the blood of poor people, in the home state of Trumps US attorney general Jeff Sessions.

A disease of the developing world thriving in the worlds richest country.

The open sewerage problem is especially acute in Lowndes County, a majority black community that was an epicenter of the civil rights movement having been the setting of Martin Luther Kings Selma to Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.

Philp
Philp Alston talks to a resident. Many families in Butler and Lowndes counties choose to live with open sewer systems made from PVC pipe. Photograph: Bob Miller for the Guardian

Despite its proud history, Catherine Flowers estimates that 70% of households in the area either straight pipe their waste directly onto open ground, or have defective septic tanks incapable of dealing with heavy rains.

When her group, Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (Acre), pressed local authorities to do something about it, officials invested $6m in extending waste treatment systems to primarily white-owned businesses while bypassing overwhelmingly black households.

Thats a glaring example of injustice, Flowers said. People who cannot afford their own systems are left to their own devices while businesses who do have the money are given public services.

Walter, a Lowndes County resident who asked not to give his last name for fear that his water supply would be cut off as a reprisal for speaking out, lives with the daily consequences of such public neglect. You get a good hard rain and it backs up into the house.

Thats a polite way of saying that sewage gurgles up into his kitchen sink, hand basin and bath, filling the house with a sickly-sweet stench.

Given these circumstances, what does he think of the ideology that anyone can make it if they try?

I suppose they could if they had the chance, Walter said. He paused, then added: Folks arent given the chance.

Had he been born white, would his sewerage problems have been fixed by now?

After another pause, he said: Not being racist, but yeah, they would.

Round the back of Walters house the true iniquity of the situation reveals itself. The yard is laced with small channels running from neighboring houses along which dark liquid flows. It congregates in viscous pools directly underneath the mobile home in which Walters son, daughter-in-law and 16-year-old granddaughter live.

It is the ultimate image of the lot of Alabamas impoverished rural black community. As American citizens they are as fully entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Its just that they are surrounded by pools of excrement.

This week, the Black Belt bit back. On Tuesday a new line was added to that simple graphic, showing exactly the same half-moon across Alabama except this time it was not black but blue.

blue belt south

It depicted the army of African American voters who turned out against the odds to send Doug Jones to the US Senate, the first Democrat from Alabama to do so in a generation. It delivered a bloody nose to his opponent, the alleged child molester Roy Moore, and his puppetmasters Steve Bannon and Donald Trump.

It was arguably the most important expression of black political muscle in the region since Kings 1965 march. If the previous entries in the graphic could be labeled soil, slavery and poverty, this one should be captioned empowerment.

Guayama, Puerto Rico, 10 December

So how does Alston view the role of UN rapporteur and his visit? His full report on the US will be released next May before being presented to the UN human rights council in Geneva.

Nobody expects much to come of that: the world body has no teeth with which to enforce good behavior on recalcitrant governments. But Alston hopes that his visit will have an impact by shaming the US into reflecting on its values.

My role is to hold governments to account, he said. If the US administration doesnt want to talk about the right to housing, healthcare or food, then there are still basic human rights standards that have to be met. Its my job to point that out.

Alstons previous investigations into extreme poverty in places like Mauritania pulled no punches. We can expect the same tough love when it comes to his analysis of Puerto Rico, the next stop on his journey into Americas dark side.

Three months after Maria, the devastation wrought by the hurricane has been well documented. It tore 70,000 homes to shreds, brought industry to a standstill and caused a total blackout of the island that continues to cause havoc.

How the middle class hoards wealth and opportunity for itself

American society is dominated by an elite 20% that ruthlessly protects its own interests

When I was growing up, my mother would sometimes threaten my brother and me with electrocution. Well, thats not quite right. In fact, the threat was of lessons in elocution, but we wittily, we thought renamed them.

Growing up in a very ordinary town just north of London and attending a very ordinary high school, one of our several linguistic atrocities was failing to pronounce the t in certain words. My mother, who was raised in rural north Wales and left school at 16, did not want us to find doors closed in a class-sensitive society simply because we didnt speak what is still called the Queens English. I will never forget the look on her face when I managed to say the word computer with neither a p nor a t.

Still, the lessons never materialised. Any lingering working-class traces in my own accent were wiped away by three disinfectant years at Oxford University. (My wife claims the adolescent accent resurfaces when I drink, but she doesnt know what shes talking about shes American.) We also had to learn how to waltz. My mother didnt want us to put a foot wrong there either.

In fact, we did just fine, in no small part because of the stable, loving home in which we were raised. But I have always been acutely sensitive to class distinctions and their role in perpetuating inequality. In fact, one of the reasons I came to the United States was to escape the cramped feeling of living in a nation still so dominated by class. I knew enough not to think I was moving to a socially mobile utopia: Id read some of the research. It has nonetheless come as something of a shock to discover that, in some important respects, the American class system is functioning more ruthlessly than the British one I escaped.

In the upper-middle-class America I now inhabit, I witness extraordinary efforts by parents to secure an elite future status for their children: tutors, coaches and weekend lessons in everything from French to fencing. But I have never heard any of my peers try to change the way their children speak. Perhaps this is simply because they know they are surrounded by other upper-middle-class kids, so there is nothing to worry about. Perhaps it is a regional thing.

But I think there is a better explanation. Americans tend to think their children will be judged by their accomplishments rather than their accents. Class position is earned, rather than simply expressed. The way to secure a higher status in a market meritocracy is by acquiring lots of merit and ensuring that our kids do, too. What ones parents are like is entirely a matter of luck, points out the philosopher Adam Swift. But he adds: What ones children are like is not. Children raised in upper-middle-class families do well in life. As a result, there is a lot of intergenerational stickiness at the top of the American income distribution more, in fact, than at the bottom with upper-middle-class status passed from one generation to the next.

Drawing class distinctions feels almost un-American. The nations self-image is of a classless society, one in which every individual is of equal moral worth, regardless of his or her economic status. This has been how the world sees the United States, too. Historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the early 19th century that Americans were seen to be more equal in fortune and intelligence more equally strong, in other words than they were in any other country, or were at any other time in recorded history. So different to the countries of old Europe, still weighed down by the legacies of feudalism.

British politicians have often felt the need to urge the creation of a classless society, looking to America for inspiration as, what historian David Cannadine once called it, the pioneering and prototypical classless society. European progressives have long looked enviously at social relations in the New World. George Orwell noted the lack of servile tradition in America; the German socialist Werner Sombart noticed that the bowing and scraping before the upper classes, which produces such an unpleasant impression in Europe, is completely unknown.

This is one of many reasons socialist politics struggled to take root in the United States. A key attraction of socialist systems the main one, according to Orwell is the eradication of class distinctions. There were few to eradicate in America. I am sure that one reason Downton Abbey and The Crown so delight American audiences is their depictions of an alien world of class-based status. One reason class distinctions are less obvious in America is that pretty much everyone defines themselves as a member of the same class: the one in the middle. Nine in ten adults select the label middle class, exactly the same proportion as in 1939, according to the pollsters Gallup. No wonder that politicians have always fallen over each other to be on their side.

But in recent decades Americans at the top of the ladder have been entrenching their class position. The convenient fiction that the middle class can stretch up that far has become a difficult one to sustain. As a result, the modifications upper or lower to the general middle class category have become more important.

Class is not just about money, though it is about that. The class gap can be seen from every angle: education, security, family, health, you name it. There will also be inequalities on each of these dimensions, of course. But inequality becomes class division when all these varied elements money, education, wealth, occupation cluster together so tightly that, in practice, almost any one of them will suffice for the purposes of class definition. Class division becomes class stratification when these advantages and thus status endure across generations. In fact, upper-middle-class status is passed down to the next generation more effectively than in the past, and in the United States more than in other countries.

One benefit of the multidimensional nature of this separation is that it has reduced interdisciplinary bickering over how to define class. While economists typically focus on categorisation by income and wealth, and sociologists tend more towards occupational status and education, and anthropologists are typically more interested in culture and norms, right now it doesnt really matter, because all the trends are going the same way.

It is not just the top 1% pulling away, but the top 20%. In fact, only a very small proportion of US adults 1% to 2% define themselves as upper class. A significant minority about one in seven adopts the upper middle class description. This is quite similar to the estimates of class size generated by most sociologists, who tend to define the upper middle class as one composed of professionals and managers, or around 15% to 20% of the working-age population.

As David Azerrad of the Heritage Foundation writes: There is little appetite in America for policies that significantly restrict the ability of parents to do all they can, within the bounds of the law, to give their children every advantage in life. That is certainly true. But then Azerrad has also mis-stated the problem. No one sensible is in favour of new policies that block parents from doing the best they can for their children. Even in France the suggestion floated by the former president, Franois Hollande, to restore equality by banning homework, on the grounds that parents differ in their ability and willingness to help out, was laughed out of court. But we should want to get rid of policies that allow parents to give their children an unfair advantage and in the process restrict the opportunities of others.

Most of us want to do our best for our children. Wanting ones childrens life to go well is part of what it means to love them, write philosophers Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift in their 2014 book Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships. But our natural preference for the welfare and prospects of our own children does not automatically eclipse other moral claims. We would look kindly on a father who helps his son get picked as starting pitcher for his school baseball team by practising with him every day after work. But we would probably feel differently about a father who secures the slot for his son by bribing the coach. Why? After all, each father has sacrificed something, time in one case, money in the other, to advance his child. The difference is team selection should be based on merit, not money. A principle of fairness is at stake.

So, where is the line drawn? The best philosophical treatment of this question I have found is the one by Swift and Brighouse. Their suggestion is that, while parents have every right to act in ways that will help their childrens lives go well, they do not have the right to confer on them a competitive advantage in other words, to ensure not just that they do well but that they do better than others. This is because, in a society with finite rewards, improving the situation of one child necessarily worsens that of another, at least in relative terms: Whatever parents do to confer competitive advantage is not neutral in its effects on other children it does not leave untouched, but rather is detrimental to, those other childrens prospects in the competition for jobs and associated rewards.

The trouble is that in the real world this seems like a distinction without a difference. What they call competitive advantage-conferring parental activities will almost always be also helping-your-kid-flourish parental activities. If I read bedtime stories to my son, he will develop a richer vocabulary and may learn to love reading and have a more interesting and fulfilling life. But it could also help him get better grades than his classmates, giving him a competitive advantage in college admissions. Swift and Brighouse suggest a parent should not even aim to give their child a competitive advantage: It would be a little odd, perhaps even a little creepy, if the ultimate aim of her endeavours were that her child is better off than others.

I think this is too harsh. In a society with a largely open, competitive labour market, it is not creepy to want your children to end up higher on the earnings ladder than others. Not only will this bring them a higher income, and all the accompanying choices and security, it is also likely to bring them safer and more interesting work. Relative position matters it is one reason, after all, that relative mobility is of such concern to policymakers. Although I think Brighouse and Swift go too far, they are on to something important with their distinction between the kind of parental behaviour that merely helps your own children and the kind that is detrimental to others. Thats what I call opportunity hoarding.

Opportunity hoarding does not result from the workings of a large machine but from the cumulative effect of individual choices and preferences. Taken in isolation, they may feel trivial: nudging your daughter into a better college with a legacy preference [giving applicants places on the basis of being related to alumni of the college]; helping the son of a professional contact to an internship; a single vote on a municipal council to retain low-density zoning restrictions. But, like many micro-preferences, to borrow a term from economist Thomas Schelling, they can have strong effects on overall culture and collective outcomes.

Over recent decades, institutions that once primarily served racist goals legacy admissions to keep out Jewish students, zoning laws to keep out black families have not been abandoned but have been softened, normalised and subtly re-purposed to help us sustain the upper-middle-class status. They remain, then, barriers to a more open, more genuinely competitive and fairer society. I wont insult your intelligence by pretending there are no costs here. By definition, reducing opportunity hoarding will mean some losses for the upper middle class.

But they will be small. Our neighbourhoods will be a little less upmarket but also less boring. Our kids will rub shoulders with some poorer kids in the school corridor. They might not squeak into an Ivy League college, and they may have to be content going to an excellent public university. But if we arent willing to entertain even these sacrifices, there is little hope. There will be some material costs, too. The big challenge is to equalise opportunities to acquire human capital and therefore increase the number of true competitors in the labour market. This will require, among other things, some increased public investment. Where will the money come from? It cant all come from the super-rich. Much of it will have to come from the upper middle class. From me andyou.

This is an extract from Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What To Do About It by Richard V Reeves (Brookings Institution Press, 2017)

HOW TO STAY AHEAD – OR PLAY FAIR

As parents, we naturally want our children to flourish. But that laudable desire slides into opportunity hoarding when we use our money, power or position to give our own children exclusive access to certain goods or chances. The effect is to strengthen class barriers.

1. Fix an internship using our networks. Internships are becoming more important but are too often stitched up privately. Its worse if theyre unpaid. Instead: insist on paid internships, openly recruited.

2. Take our own kids to work for the day. Children learn what work is from adults. Instead: try bringing somebody elses kid to work, perhaps by partnering with local charities.

3. Be a Nimby. By shutting out low-income housing from our neighbourhoods with planning restrictions, we keep less affluent kids away from our local schools and communities. Instead: be a Yimby, vote and argue for more mixed housing in your area.

4. Write cheques to PTA funds. Many of us want to support the school our children attend. This tilts the playing field, however, since other schools cant do the same. Instead: get your PTA to give half the donations to a school in a poor area.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/jul/15/how-us-middle-classes-hoard-opportunity-privilege