Stephanie Sy and Philip Alston. CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni
Stephanie Sy and Philip Alston. CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni

Extreme Poverty in the United States, with the UN's Philip Alston

Jan 10, 2018

The UN's Philip Alston traveled across the U.S. recently and found appalling conditions, from homelessness in California to open sewage in rural Alabama. He discusses the political choices that allow this to continue and proposes solutions.

STEPHANIE SY: Welcome to Ethics Matter. I'm Stephanie Sy.

Our guest is Philip Alston, the special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights for the United Nations. He is also a professor at the New York University School of Law. Philip, thank you so much for joining us here at the Carnegie Council.

I understand that you recently spent two weeks exploring places of poverty in the United States. Give us the context for poverty in America and why you decided to focus on the United States at this time when there are so many pockets of deep poverty all over the globe.

PHILIP ALSTON: There are many pockets of deep poverty everywhere. The United States, first of all, has a very significant poverty rate, over 14 percent by its own count. That makes 40 million people in the United States. That is a very significant number.

Second, the United States is very important because unlike almost any other country it does not really want to acknowledge the societal responsibility to those who are living in poverty. It has got a go-it-alone-type mentality.

Third, the United States is an example to many other countries. The United States tends to be mimicked or imitated by a lot of other countries. I come from Australia. What I see in Australia right now is the mimicking of American approaches to poverty alleviation.

STEPHANIE SY: In policy?

PHILIP ALSTON: In policy. So for example, attaching the highest importance to tax cuts for the wealthy, arguing that welfare benefits are detrimental to the economy in some way, that there is a huge amount of fraud going on, that what we should be doing is focusing only on employment and not on welfare, that we need to weed out those who are abusing the system, for example, by using drugs or doing something else, all those sorts of initiatives, none of which are premised on any conception of social justice or what I refer to as "social rights."

STEPHANIE SY: Are they even premised on evidence that tax cuts help people in poverty or alleviate poverty in any way?

PHILIP ALSTON: They are almost always based on the assertion that the way to help the poorest is to cut taxes, raise employment, and that will resolve all the problems.

STEPHANIE SY: Classic trickle-down, supply-side economics.

PHILIP ALSTON: Right. And the problem is that there are very few economists who really believe that sort of dynamic is likely to follow from tax cuts.

STEPHANIE SY: Let's get into what you saw where you went. You started off on the West Coast, in California, which is one of the richer states in the United States, but you followed homelessness in those places. What did you see that surprised you?

PHILIP ALSTON: First, just a little bit of background. I, as UN special rapporteur—the idea is that all countries in the world agree to be held accountable in some way for their human rights performance. So a country like the United States is very keen to hold China, Russia, Vietnam, Cuba, you name it, to account in terms of their human rights performance. But the deal at the United Nations is that all countries are held to account in some way. So this particular exercise was a way of saying: "Well, it's now the United States' turn, and the focus is going to be on the relationship between poverty and what Americans call 'civil rights.'"

I then spent two weeks, which is a very short period of time for this sort of enterprise but rather large in diplomatic terms to be putting a country under scrutiny for that period of time, and I traveled from California across to Puerto Rico with various stops in between.

As you said, I began essentially on the West Coast, and my focus there was mainly on homelessness. So I went to Skid Row in Los Angeles, and I went up to the Tenderloin District in San Francisco. In each of those places what I saw was pretty stunning in a way. It is surprising because I have seen a lot of very grim poverty around the world, but to go to a country like the United States, which is very wealthy, and then to a city like Los Angeles, which is particularly affluent in so many ways, and see within a stone's throw, literally, of the central business district 50 blocks which are covered with tents, encampments, people on the sidewalk and so on, with no real access to toilets, to showers, to running water and so on was really quite extraordinary.

STEPHANIE SY: And you saw similar scenes in San Francisco. Skid Row—I am from Los Angeles—has been there forever, since I was a kid. I understand you met with local and state officials. What was their explanation for why homelessness remains so entrenched in parts of California?

PHILIP ALSTON: On the one hand, there is this sense that homelessness will always be with us, that there is nothing we can do, and that in fact the more we do, the more we are just going to attract people from all over, and so all we can do is just to keep things humming along at a very minimal level.

The reality, though, is that the policies that are being pursued rely primarily on two wonderful institutions, prisons and emergency rooms, not on the building of homes. In other words, what has developed is this sort of cycle of poverty-homelessness-criminality where the homeless are getting increasingly irritating to the well-off.

So what they are doing in a lot of municipalities is to pass new ordinances which criminalize certain aspects. So it becomes a crime to sleep on the sidewalk, maybe a crime to sit on the sidewalk. It will be a crime to sleep in a park. It will certainly be a crime to urinate in public. Public urination ain't a pretty picture, but what does one do if there are absolutely and determinedly no toilets provided, and there aren't in L.A.

What then happens is that these people are ticketed. They are given a fine. Now the fine looks pretty small. They do not have 1/100th of that amount, and of course they cannot pay it. After a very short period of time, the fine then starts to increase significantly. They are then called to court. They do not go to court because they do not want to leave their possessions on the street, where they will disappear. They will be picked up by the council, they will be put in a compactor. They do not go to court.

They are then guilty of a misdemeanor, and at a certain point the next arrest will take them to prison. They will spend time in prison. When they get out, they will have lost all their possessions, of course, but what they will have gained, which is really great, is a criminal conviction. They then cannot get work and are ineligible for a lot of housing. It is perfect. It is the lovely cycle, and it begins all over again.

So then the question is, well, presumably the authorities are building a lot of housing. There is a lot of talk, there are the various propositions in Los Angeles designed to generate more money. But the amount of housing that is actually being built for the homeless, what they call "single room occupancy units," for example, is extremely low and does not get anywhere near the needs. So we continue to rely on prisons and emergency rooms as the main policy response.

STEPHANIE SY: To house these people but also to provide them with medical attention in some cases.

Sort of reversing a little bit—and I know you spent actual time with these people—did you see trends or patterns in what landed them in these situations in the first place?

PHILIP ALSTON: I think it varies. I think we have a stereotype of a homeless person who generally fell into drugs, alcohol, maybe prostitution, or whatever, and life has never looked up. But that is not at all the exclusive background.

A lot of these people once had jobs. A lot of them have mental illness, but that does not mean that they are, to use the colloquialism, "crazy," it means that they suffer mental illness just as a very large proportion of the "normal" population do, but their mental illness has made it very difficult for them to get work, and at a certain point they have just fallen off the cliff. They could not make payments, they could not hold a job, and they have been thrown out of the home that they were in, and they are on the streets.

STEPHANIE SY: Would you say it was bad luck in a lot of cases?

PHILIP ALSTON: I would not try to characterize it, I think because—the conservatives will always say this is moral failure. I unfortunately think that most of us are guilty of some moral failures, whether it is alcohol, whether it is just—there are a whole range of ways. And the fact that the moral failings of some people leads them to be homeless does not turn it into just bad luck, but it also does not mean that it is something that they deserve.

STEPHANIE SY: Isn't it a moral failing, some could argue, for a society not to address the needs of these people?

PHILIP ALSTON: This is the realization that I came to—surprisingly because I should have realized this earlier—on this trip, that when I look at a homeless person, and as a middle-class, law-abiding, white citizen I think, This person is not very clean, doesn't smell very nice. I don't really want them around my neighborhood.

Of course, instead of looking at them and thinking that, what I should do is exactly what you say, look at them and say: "My god, this is a failing of the society in which I live. Is this the best we can do?" Every society has people who are "down and out," but the challenge is to be able to assist them and treat them with humanity, and we don't. We look away. We don't want to see them, we don't want to talk to them, and we certainly don't want to factor them into our broader policy analyses.

STEPHANIE SY: Is that something that you think is unique to American values and culture, or do you think in other places in which you have explored poverty and homelessness you see a similar disdain and stereotyping of the poor?

PHILIP ALSTON: I think both, in a way. In other words, I do not think I go anywhere where people really welcome the homeless, those who have not showered for weeks or months or whatever, with open arms. So America is not unique in that respect.

But America is unfortunately exceptional in the sense that there is a widespread belief that if you cannot make it on your own, that if you cannot make use of what Americans think of as equality of opportunity, there is no residual responsibility upon the society. There is no sense of compassion, and there is no sense that the purpose of government is precisely to ensure a basic minimum condition of life for everyone who lives in the country.

STEPHANIE SY: I was reading about your travels, and there is a moment of hope that you described to a journalist—The Guardian newspaper was with you on this journey—and it was when you visited a church. So there are some institutions, civic institutions, religious institutions, that do show this compassion. But your argument is that government is not displaying that empathy.

PHILIP ALSTON: There is a certain irony. This was in San Francisco. The church I was taken to—they said let's do a tour of the relevant areas, but first we will go to this church. I thought, I have been to a thousand churches in my time—partly in my poverty role—no, I don't want to waste a lot of time here.

I walked in through the door, and then suddenly I see this sea of humanity. Every pew was full of homeless people sleeping or resting. It was the most amazing sight because they had done it in a very orderly, organized way that employed 10 formerly homeless people to keep everything under control. When Mass was to be celebrated twice a day, they had to leave, or they could stay for Mass, but they could not just sleep through it. It seemed like just a wonderful use of the church.

So I said to the women who was in charge of this: "This is terrific. I presume that other churches are doing it, too."

And her response was "Yeah. One other is, but all the others we've approached have said no."

So not even the churches, where this seems such a natural thing, to reach out to the poorest members of their community, are really prepared to do it.

But to come back to the key issue, the role of government, I think that is again what distinguishes the United States in many ways. The current thrust of official policy is the reverse of the insights of the New Deal and all the assumptions that came with that, which were that government has a role in regulating the economy both at the top and at the bottom. In other words, businesses cannot thrive unless government is regulating the market in such a way as to facilitate and promote entrepreneurship and so on. That is still happening. Despite all of the rhetoric, the government structures the market, creates the opportunities, and facilitates business.

But at the lower end, the assumption of the New Deal also was that government had a role to look after those who the capitalist system leaves in its wake. The capitalist system cannot and never will look after the worst off. That is just the way it is, and so government has that role. But we are moving now to assume that government should not do that, that government should not provide any services, that all the basics should be privatized. And what that means is that you have a large percentage of the population who are increasingly neglected, who do not have access to the really essentially care and education and so on that they need.

STEPHANIE SY: There were always these two ideals that I grew up with as a child of immigrants, that there is this notion of self-reliance and hard work which you hear a lot from conservatives in this country, but there is also this notion of equal opportunity. Is what you are saying you saw in this journey that the balance has been skewed, that there is less equal distribution of opportunity versus a focus on everyone shall be self-reliant and everyone shall be hard-working and therefore fulfill this American dream?

PHILIP ALSTON: I think the American dream is one of the land of opportunity, so that if all of us have an equal opportunity, those who really work hard, those who have talent will rise to the top and be rewarded generously, and those who don't, well, that is their fault, and they look after themselves, they suffer their own consequences.

The problem is that the United States has now become actually the least mobile socially of all of the rich countries. The research shows without contradiction that if you are born in a particular ZIP Code, your chances of getting out of that ZIP Code are generally very low. The good news is that that is certainly true for the rich ZIP Codes, because you will go to a great school, you will have good childcare, you will have peer groups that will foster growth in various ways, and you will stay rich. But if you are born in a poor ZIP Code, you will have bad child care, you will have lousy health care, you will have very low-quality education, you will have influences that are extremely negative, and the chances are that you will remain very poor for life.

So in reality we are not providing equality of opportunity, we are providing a golden opportunity for a small percentage of society, and we are providing virtually no opportunity for those who are living in poverty.

STEPHANIE SY: Tell me some of the other places that you visited. I understand you were in Alabama, which is one of the poorest states in the union. I read that there you saw examples of poverty that were quite shocking, such as open sewage systems. Describe in a little bit more detail what you witnessed and what struck you.

PHILIP ALSTON: It is interesting because I think in developed countries we do not tend to think of sewage systems as an issue.

STEPHANIE SY: No. It is almost taken for granted.

PHILIP ALSTON: We assume that by the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, one of the great achievements was running water and sanitation systems.

What is really interesting to me is that right now in India there is a huge campaign to provide effective sanitation systems for everyone in the country. India has a very big problem of what they call "open defecation." They realize this has enormous health consequences, and so there is a government-run campaign with vast amounts of money being spent to try to provide sanitation for all.

I go to Alabama, and I discover that outside of the main cities most places do not have any government-provided sewage systems. What they have is their own septic tank system, but because the soil is very hard in much of Alabama the costs can easily mount to $30,000 to install a septic system. If you are living in poverty as many Alabamans do, you certainly cannot afford $30,000. You may then have a very elderly septic tank which does not function, or you simply do not have one, and you have what they call a "straight pipe." A straight pipe goes straight out into maybe a nearby stream if you are really lucky, but more likely into the back garden, the backyard. So what I saw are these sort of cesspools around houses where the sewage is just flowing out.

I asked health authorities: "Can you give me an estimate? What percentage of people in the state don't have access?"

"Uhh, couldn't really tell you that."

"Okay. So do you have a program where you're sort of trying to progressively extend—"

"Oh, no. No, no, no. There are grants from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for people if they want to apply for them, but it's quite time-consuming, and I guess not many people really do apply."

"So what are you doing about it?"

"Well, I mean, it's not our responsibility."

Of course, that encapsulates it. My sense is that governments have a variety of responsibilities. Conservatives of course will agree that security is absolutely essential, national security, external, but internal security, policing and so on, governments must provide that. But clearly governments also have to provide basic infrastructure, and infrastructure is not just airports and roads and so on. Infrastructure is enabling people to get access to water, enabling them to have access to sanitation, and enabling them to have access to things like decent schools and basic health care facilities.

STEPHANIE SY: What did the people who were living in these conditions tell you? Who did they hold responsible for the lack of sewage systems?

PHILIP ALSTON: That is another part of American exceptionalism. In many countries you would find people railing against the government and saying "this is unacceptable," etc. In America, some people feel that way, but a lot of people say: "Well, you know, government, they don't do anything for us. Why would I count on them?" So they do not hold government to account, which I must say I find strange.

STEPHANIE SY: You have argued that extreme poverty negates human rights. In your travels in America, would you say you saw violations of international human rights law?

PHILIP ALSTON: I need to unpack that statement that extreme inequality, extreme poverty undermine civil rights. First of all, at one level, where you have really radical inequality, you lose equality of arms in the political arena. So if you have a society where the top 1 percent own 50 percent of the wealth or even much more in some cases, the votes are not equally valid because the rich can effectively buy the system. That is one level.

But more important for me in a sense was the problem at the other extreme. In other words, people who are living in poverty generally do not vote in this country. Why don't they vote? The easy explanation is: "Well, they're not educated, and they don't care about things anyway, so they don't bother." That is not true.

First of all, there are very deliberate attempts to disenfranchise a lot of poor people. Huge numbers of so-called "former felons" remain disenfranchised, often for life. Many of those are people of color. It is a very intentional system. When people have paid their debt to society, particularly for lower-level crimes, there is no justification for lifetime disenfranchisement. But it is convenient because they are poor, and so you get them off the rolls.

Next is a very concerted effort that I saw in different places to make it very hard for the poor to vote: Voter ID laws, which become every more demanding, things like moving Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) out of poor areas so they are not as accessible for people who need to get their IDs and so on, and a whole range of other tricks basically designed to reduce the numbers of poor people who vote.

So the reality is that those people are not actually participating in the decisions that affect them. They are not a group that the wealthy elites need to factor in in their policymaking. They assume that they can adopt policies which will further reduce the conditions of life of the poor, and there will be no political consequences of that.

STEPHANIE SY: So you deal with the political part. Let's unpack that a little further, because a lot of people would point to the last U.S. election and say in general the conservatives, represented by the Republicans in this country and Donald Trump in this case, largely were supported by people on the lower income spectrum, not at the—actually, at the most extreme poverty level, there was a lot of support for the Democratic candidate.

Even with voter disenfranchisement and all of that that you describe, people in the lower income strata and with lower levels of education did tend to vote for a government whose platform would be to shrink government and to provide less of a safety net and less public assistance. How would you square that?

PHILIP ALSTON: First of all, keep in mind the need to distinguish the different income groups, as it were. In the United States we tend to talk about middle-class people. But middle-class people is basically everyone between the extremely rich and the very poor. That means that the bottom 15, and I would go further and say 20 percent, are out of this equation. They are not the people who voted for anyone in particular because they did not vote all that much.

We do not study that. We do tend to study racial approaches to voting, so what did the African American population do, what did the Hispanic community do, etc., but we do not tend to disaggregate it according to class: What did those who are living in extreme poverty do? How many of them voted? As far as I know, we do not have statistics on that.

STEPHANIE SY: We do not really know.

PHILIP ALSTON: But certainly my anecdotal evidence is that most of them did not vote.

So we are talking then about the middle classes, those who are economically better off. There I think what we saw is that the main concern is economic insecurity. It is not a rejection of welfare, it is not a rejection of a government role in providing the sort of safety nets. But it is a cry for something to be done about the economic insecurity which is really affecting the whole economy.

So if you are in the middle classes, there is a real likelihood that your job is at risk, that automation, robotization, the gig economy, etc., is going to either eliminate your job or make it much less secure, more precarious. You are going to suddenly have a no-hours contract. You are going to have to be available around the clock, but you might only end up being called upon to do 15 hours of work, even though you are available. And the payment for those 15 hours will not be enough money to get you by. You have lost all the benefits that you would have had 10, 20, 30 years ago.

So I think a lot of the people who voted for change are saying, "This system doesn't work for me." And I think they are absolutely right, it doesn't.

STEPHANIE SY: It is interesting that technological replacement and the effects of the gig economy were not spoken of as much as the effects of globalization, the offshoring of American jobs, and immigration by the conservative candidate Trump.

But I want to go back for a moment, and I do want to talk more about the remedies to some of the issues that you have brought up to worker insecurity in a bit, but first I want to go back to the idea of human rights and extreme poverty and this connection you draw between the two, which Pope Francis has also drawn. He has said that economic rights, the rights to health care and education, should be considered in the umbrella of human rights.

That has not traditionally been the case, has it? And it does not seem to be accepted widely in the United States, that social and economic rights should be under that umbrella. How do you make that case?

PHILIP ALSTON: It is a very bizarre background, to be honest. First of all, the international definition of human rights absolutely includes the full array of what we call "economic and social human rights." In virtually any other country that I visit there is no debate: There is a right to health care, there is a right to education, there is a right to food. Not a debate.

In the United States, suddenly it is different. But the great irony here is that though the economic rights that are in what we call the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came from where?

STEPHANIE SY: The United States?

PHILIP ALSTON: Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed in 1943, a second Bill of Rights for the United States. The rights that he formulated then are basically identical to the rights that were then put into the Universal Declaration.

But the United States parted ways as soon as the Cold War began. So in the late 1940s, instead of being prepared to support both sets of human rights, the United States started to distinguish itself from the communists by saying: "We're different. Those guys want socialism. We want freedom." And freedom was suddenly detached from the economic conditions which are in fact indispensable for real freedom.

Today the United States is really alone internationally in insisting that the only real human rights are civil and political rights. Of course I think Pope Francis is right, but I think the whole international legal framework is right and that to think that you can enjoy these other civil and political rights if you do not enjoy access to health care, for example, is illusory. If you do not have enough to eat, if you cannot deal with basic illnesses, you cannot do all the other things: You can't work, you can't vote, you can't participate freely in the society. They all go together.

STEPHANIE SY: Do you think that there is more momentum building within the United States to view things that way in the places that you were? Did you talk to people who were living in deep poverty about how they should approach their plight as human rights issues?

PHILIP ALSTON: I think there is still quite a lot of reluctance. We saw this in the health care debate, that you had occasional references by President Obama, you had people like Senator Bernie Sanders, and a few others talking about a right to health care, and you have seen placards out there saying "Health is a Right." But for the most part, the dominant elites in the country reject that notion, so they are not yet prepared to proceed as though these are things that have to be secured as a right for all Americans.

The problem, of course, is that given recent developments, given the December 2017 tax reform, given the dramatic changes in welfare, in Medicare, Medicaid that are certainly on the agenda for 2018, what we are going to see is a huge increase in inequality. But particularly those who are in the bottom 20 percent who rely to a significant extent on food stamps, on Medicaid, on child health provisions and so on, will see their standard of living tumbling even further, and that is going to, I think, provoke a pretty major debate within American society.

STEPHANIE SY: There are a couple of systems that have been innately brought up in this conversation. You bring up communism and how that might have been the area where there was a cleaving in our understanding of human rights. Do you view the 40 million people in this country who are living in poverty, 20 million of whom live in deep poverty, as collateral damage of capitalism, of a political system that has failed them?

PHILIP ALSTON: I think it is both. Certainly capitalism. I am not opposed to capitalism. I think we have probably got to the stage where we accept that it is the only system that really generates maximum wealth, rewards initiative, and so on. But no one who has studied capitalism has ever believed that it is capable of providing for the worst off. It leaves people in its wake. It is competitive, it drives, and it is designed to move on.

So the supplement—which is indispensable for capitalism—is precisely to have a sort of government-sponsored floor. But what is happening there is that there is not the political will. There is no doubt in my mind that the persistence of poverty in any country, but certainly in a rich country like the United States, is a political choice. If governments wanted to eliminate poverty, they could do so tomorrow. They have chosen not to.

STEPHANIE SY: And that goes back to that cycle of who is the electorate and who within the electorate is disenfranchised. We could get into big money and politics and all sorts of issues, but I want to get into remedies with our remaining time.

One thing I know that you have been researching, and a lot of academics seem to be buzzing about this phrase, "universal basic income." Why don't you lay out for our viewers what that is.

PHILIP ALSTON: Universal basic income is a self-described utopian notion that has actually been around since Utopia, Thomas More's book, but many authors coming from all different types of political perspectives have proposed that society should base itself on providing a basic income to every person in the community, which would be a comprehensive grant, it would be universal, it would be in cash, it would not be conditional.

It has a lot of attractions in the sense that every individual will have a certain amount of money at their disposal. It is not going to be enough for them to live a good life on, it is going to be enough to subsist on. But it is going to give them the platform, the foundation, on which to build a better life if they want to. If they do not want to, as one of the main proponents has argued, they can go and surf their life away and do nothing else. They will be living on a very tiny amount of money, but the society would be better off not to try to force them to work, not to have the big bureaucracy that is checking on them every minute of every day, and to instead give them a certain dignity, to affirm that we are a society that looks after all of our people.

So the idea of a universal basic income has always been supported by a range of philosophers and others, but it is now becoming much more interesting to the hard-nosed economic types because what we are seeing—and it is no surprise that the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are at the head of much of this—is the potential for radically lower levels of productive employment in our societies.

As robots start to accomplish ever more jobs on factory floors, in warehouses, and so on, as we move toward driverless transportation systems, cars, and so on, there simply are not going to be the jobs available at those lower levels of skill, and people are concerned: First, that it is going to be dehumanizing because people will be unemployed. Second, it will be socially problematic because if you have a lot of very poor unemployed people it is not a good recipe. And third, it is economically unproductive because you do not have a consumer base to buy all the electronics and other products that are being developed.

So there are increasing numbers of people—Mark Zuckerberg, for example, in an address at Harvard University basically endorsed the concept, saying that we need to explore whether we can provide this sort of basic income grant to everyone.

STEPHANIE SY: It is a very interesting ideology behind the concept, just when you think of human dignity.

I want to take this back to your journey in places of deep poverty in the United States, because the concept of a universal basic income partially is based on this idea that people do want to work, that most people will not just take the universal basic income and decide to surf their lives away. Did you find evidence of that in the people that you met, that these were people who did want to work, and there just simply were not the opportunities that you and I have discussed in this conversation?

PHILIP ALSTON: The United States is a country of workers. There is a real work ethic. I met a number of people who are doing two or three jobs, and the ones who were most heartbreaking were the ones who said: "Look, I work full-time and I have a second job, and I can't live on it. It's not enough."

There are many employees of Walmart, for example, who work full-time, but they receive food stamps. In other words, their income levels remain so low that they are eligible for government support to provide basic foodstuffs.

What I found was a real desire to work, but simply there is not work available. And there is a great irony because the conservative side of politics these days is all about "We've got to move people off welfare and into employment." But there are not the jobs, certainly not at that level of skill, and the government is not paying to retrain these people, it is not putting money into trying to create any sort of decent jobs.

So to the extent that there are jobs available, they are very low-paying, which is fine ironically by the people who have to do them, but they are not enough to live on. So you need to have the welfare system again even to prop up that part of the employment market.

STEPHANIE SY: It is a very dismal picture you paint, Philip, between the social, criminal, and political challenges that face people not just living in poverty in this country but that may eventually face a lot more people as the economy moves toward more automation.

What optimism and what hope would you leave people with?

PHILIP ALSTON: The thing about the United States is that it really is exceptional in good ways as well as bad. It is exceptional in terms of its work ethic, it is exceptional in terms of its wealth levels, and it is exceptional in terms of its creativity.

I think my hope is that there will come a time when a new social compact will be seen as the best way forward, not only in the interests of those living in poverty, but more importantly in order to generate a more productive society. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), everyone else, all say that extreme inequality is economically inefficient. So what America needs to realize is that in addition to that inefficiency, the other inefficiency, of course, is treating poor people through the prison system and the hospital system. That is vastly more expensive than to set up the sort of basic welfare nets that are really desired.

So what we need is a more rational debate, a more evidence-based policymaking approach which accepts the fact that providing the basics—providing universal basic health care, providing decent schools, and so on—is a much more economically as well as socially productive way forward. The United States can easily take the lead on that. It does not get the United States into a socialist economy, it just becomes a rational market-driven capitalist economy.

STEPHANIE SY: Philip Alston, thank you so much for your insights.

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