The United Nation's Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, toured a rural Alabama community where "raw sewage flows from homes through exposed PVC pipes and into open trenches and pits," and said he had never before seen conditions like that in the developed world.
I think it's very uncommon in the First World. This is not a sight that one normally sees. I'd have to say that I haven't seen this.
As part of a two-week investigation into poverty and human rights abuses in the United States, Alson visited Alabama's Black Belt, where a study released earlier this year found that Lowndes County residents are suffering from high rates of hookworm infection, a poverty-related disease typically found only in developing countries and long thought to have been eradicated in the United States.
In addition to examining health care, access to clean and safe drinking water, and sanitation, the special rapporteur is evaluating how economic inequality and racial discrimination are linked to civil rights abuses in Alabama and across the South.
Lowndes County has a long history of racial discrimination and inequality; white residents' violent opposition to civil rights there earned it the nickname "Bloody Lowndes." Today, the average annual income is $18,046, and almost a third of the population lives below the poverty line. Of the county's 11,000 residents, 74 percent are African American.
"Some might ask why a U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights would visit a country as rich as the United States," Alston said. "But despite great wealth in the U.S., there also exists great poverty and inequality."
And that has significant human rights implications, he explained to reporters.
"The idea of human rights is that people have basic dignity and that it's the role of the government—yes, the government!—to ensure that no one falls below the decent level," he said. "Civilized society doesn't say for people to go and make it on your own and if you can't, bad luck."
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly 41 million Americans are living in poverty, and while likely an underestimate, that gives the United States the second-highest poverty rate among wealthy nations.
Poverty in America disproportionately burdens racial minorities—black, Hispanic, and Native American children are two to three times more likely to live in poverty than white children, and minorities have higher unemployment rates, work longer hours, and are paid less than their white counterparts on average.
Preliminary findings and recommendations from the investigatory tour, which includes stops in California, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico, will be announced in Washington today. A full report will be presented to the UN's human rights council in June.