Is poverty putting a spoke in the wheels of the Great American Dream?

Sunilchandra Dal
Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Great American Dream is based on democracy, rights, opportunity, equality, freedom and the opportunity for hard work leading to prosperity, success and upward mobility. This dream of working hard and making it big and rich is attractive to Indians too and hence, many Indians aspire to settle in the United States and get the elusive Green Card. Though the American dream is achievable as evident from the many success stories, there is a section of Americans which is stuck in poverty.

The Great American Dream is based on democracy, rights, opportunity, equality, freedom and the opportunity for hard work leading to prosperity, success and upward mobility. This dream of working hard and making it big and rich is attractive to Indians too and hence, many Indians aspire to settle in the United States and get the elusive Green Card. Though the American dream is achievable as evident from the many success stories, there is a section of Americans which is stuck in poverty. This is the focus of a report prepared by Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. The report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on June 21 this year. It is available on the United Nations website and contains Alston’s conclusions from a fact-finding visit to the US in December 2017.

“For one of the world’s wealthiest countries, 40 million people are living in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty and 5.3 million in Third World conditions of absolute poverty,” according to Alston. In 2016, 12.7 per cent of Americans were living in poverty; according to the supplemental poverty measure, the figure was 14 per cent. 

Alston questions whether the US is really the land of opportunity where the poorest can aspire to the ranks of the richest. He says the American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion. The equality of opportunity is in practice a myth, especially for minorities and women and many middle class White workers.

Alston says the $1.5 trillion in tax cuts in December 2017 benefited the wealthy. “The Trump Administration has brought in massive tax breaks for corporations and the very wealthy, while orchestrating a systematic assault on the welfare system. The strategy seems to be tailor made to maximise inequality and to plunge millions of working Americans, and those unable to work, into penury,” says the report.

The report says the principal strategy of the US to deal with extreme poverty is to criminalise and stigmatise those in need of assistance. Thus, democracy itself is under threat in the US. “The United States now has the highest income inequality in the Western world, the highest incarceration rate in the world and one of the lowest turnout rates in elections among developed countries. 

High inequality coincides with the overt and covert disenfranchisement of millions of American voters. The result is that democracy itself is under threat because of extreme inequality and the range of policies being pursued to make it worse.” “Large numbers of welfare recipients are assumed to be living high on ‘the dole’. Some politicians and political appointees with whom the Special Rapporteur spoke were completely sold on the narrative of such scammers sitting on comfortable sofas, watching cable television or spending their days on their smartphones, all paid for by welfare,” says the report. In every system, there is a range of opinions and there are some people with views that are extreme. But can such views be considered as the official position? May be such views have no place in a report based on facts. Americans need to study the report and see to what extent it is true. 

However, the report may highlight the need for Americans to introspect. While it is a good idea to work hard and grow rich, society should take care of the less fortunate. The system has to be tweaked to offer opportunities to the poor and better social security. When all sections of society are taken care of, then only can the Americans call their dream as great.

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