Is the United Nations a group of people of good faith, joining together in the effort to help bring peace and justice and economic development to the world? Or is it a group of haters of freedom and capitalism engaged primarily in spewing ignorance, malice or both toward the United States? For a clue, you might take a look at the "Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on his mission to the United States of America," recently issued by the UN's so-called Human Rights Council.
Yes, this is the same Human Rights Council from which the U.S. just announced its withdrawal. It is also the same Human Rights Council that includes among its members China, Cuba, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela -- with ambassadors who think that the best use of their time and resources is to criticize the economic and human rights record of the U.S.
The UN's Report grew out of a two-week (December 1-15, 2017) "visit" to the United States by an Englishman, Philip Alston, designated the "Special Rapporteur." After its issuance in May, the Report drew more attention than it might have otherwise because on June 12 it brought forth a letter to UN Ambassador Nikki Haley from a collection of Members of Congress, led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, expressing supposed "deep concern" about the findings. This letter in turn provoked a sharp rebuke from Haley on June 21.
You may be aware that the UN actually has an official definition of "extreme poverty," which is "liv[ing] . . . on less than $1.90 per person per day." $1.90 per day would come to just under $700 per year. This March 2017 post from Our World in Data -- using data sourced from the World Bank -- contains a country-by-country list of the total number of people in the world deemed to be living in this condition of "extreme poverty." The United States (along with the main countries of Western Europe, and also such places as Canada and Australia) does not even appear on the list. So you might expect the Report of the UN's Special Rapporteur on "extreme poverty" regarding the U.S. to be a one-liner saying something like "there is nothing like that here."
You would be wrong. The UN Report contains an extraordinary degree of both ignorance and malice. Here is the basic methodology:
Despite having a title stating that its subject is "extreme poverty" in the U.S., the Report immediately abandons the UN's own official definition of that concept. Instead, the Report adopts the U.S. government's own so-called "official poverty measure," by which some 12.7% of Americans (about 41 million people) were said to be living "in poverty" in the most recent statistics. (Report, ¶16: "According to the official poverty measures, in 2016, 12.7 per cent of Americans were living in poverty.") The UN Report never mentions that the U.S. "official poverty level" is in the range of $7000 per year per person, or about ten times higher than the UN's defined level of "extreme poverty."
Once having adopted the 12.7% poverty figure for the U.S., the Report immediately switches to talking about "extreme poverty" (Report, ¶17: "[T]he persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power. With political will, it could readily be eliminated."), without ever mentioning that this term has a completely different definition than the U.S. official poverty level. Nothing in the UN Report even attempts to establish that anything remotely resembling "extreme poverty" by the UN's definition exists in the U.S.
- In other words, the U.S. distributes to its low-income residents resources beyond their income equal to an additional 40 times per person the amount officially deemed by the UN to constitute "extreme poverty." Instead of recognizing the huge amounts in question and the extraordinary generosity of the American taxpayers toward the less-well-off, the Report belittles these distributions as "the meagre welfare arrangements that currently exist." (Report, ¶29)
The UN Report then systematically excludes from consideration, and completely omits any quantitative discussion of the more than $1.2 trillion of annual cash and in-kind redistributions to low-income people in the United States, nearly all of which are also excluded from arbitrarily-defined "income" when the U.S. determines who is "in poverty." These annual redistributions – in scores of different programs ranging from direct welfare grants to the earned income tax credit to food stamps to energy assistance to school lunches to Pell grants to public housing to Medicaid to legal services and on and on -- amount to almost $30,000 for every single person deemed to be "in poverty" by the U.S. official poverty measure.
Had Mr. Alston done even the most basic due diligence for his Report, he would quickly have found that the vast distributions of cash and in-kind benefits to low-income people in the U.S. are sufficient in nearly every case to provide them with resources in excess of the so-called "official poverty level" – in many cases, far in excess. For example, an April 2018 study by John Early for the Cato Institute found that counting the $1.2 trillion of annual redistributions toward the income of the recipients would reduce the official poverty level in the U.S. from 12.7% all the way down to about 2%. And the remaining 2% would be people who for some reason had not sought out the benefits.
The malice and ignorance of this Report, however, is by no means limited to its systematic dishonesty as to the measure of "extreme poverty" and the number of people experiencing it. Once having made its bogus claims about levels of "extreme poverty" in the U.S., the UN Report then veers wildly off the economic topic to attack the United States on everything from the criminal justice system to income inequality to alleged racism. On that last subject of "racism," for example, here is what Mr. Alston claims to have uncovered during his two-week visit (Report, ¶14):
"In imagining the poor, racist stereotypes are usually not far beneath the surface. The poor are overwhelmingly assumed to be people of colour, whether African Americans or Hispanic 'immigrants'".
Note the use of the passive voice -- the poor "are overwhelmingly assumed" to be people of color. By whom? Did Alston do some kind of survey? Obviously, he is just throwing around a wild accusation, based on his own pre-existing prejudice, with the passive voice that enables him to avoid even stating whom he is accusing.
On the subject of the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs in the U.S., the UN Report adopts the pervasive fraudulent convention of spending advocates of not counting the government spending when they want to present a high rate of poverty, and then switching to counting the spending when they want to claim the spending is effective.
In case one is unfamiliar with the central deception of the poverty fraud, it works like this:
Most people -- indeed, nearly everyone -- have no idea that when our government measures "poverty" they systematically exclude many things from the definition of "income" in order to keep the number of people said to be "in poverty" artificially high. Almost all government handouts and benefits are excluded, including things essentially indistinguishable from cash like food stamps, EITC, and Pell grants. Also excluded are moneys taken or received sporadically as opposed to regularly. Thus, if you convert your 401(k) to a regular monthly annuity, it counts as "income," but if you take irregular sporadic withdrawals it does not. Once you learn even a little about this, you realize that this is a total scam to gin up poverty numbers that are fraudulently high, and thus useful to advocate for more spending to address this seemingly pervasive problem.
The convention, however, of not counting spending in measuring "income" to determine poverty status leaves advocates for more spending wide open to the criticism, that the annual trillion plus in spending has been completely ineffective in reducing poverty as measured. Thus, you get advocates stating, as Alston does, "EITC reduces people in poverty by 6 million" or some such number, but never mentioning that this is the reduction that would occur if the EITC were counted; but is, in fact, not counted.
In other words, they have adopted a "convention" of not counting things such as EITC and food stamp spending when they want to claim high numbers of people in poverty, and then counting them when they want to claim that the programs work to reduce poverty. They just switch back and forth to whatever they think will deceive the mark.
From Report, ¶41:
"[T]he Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program kept 3.8 million children out of poverty in 2015, and in 2016, the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit lifted a further 4.7 million children out of poverty."
Actually, as the source cited by Alston makes clear, SNAP (food stamps), the EITC and the child credit do not remove anyone from measured poverty in the U.S., because these benefits are not counted in the official poverty measure. Apparently, Alston assumes that his readers are too uninformed to notice his bait and switch.
Alston then moves on to "environmental pollution," and comes up with this howler:
"In Alabama and West Virginia, a high proportion of the population is not served by public sewerage and water supply services. Contrary to the assumption in most developed countries that such services should be extended by the government systematically and eventually comprehensively to all areas, neither state was able to provide figures as to the magnitude of the challenge or details of any planned government response."
Alston appears to be completely unaware that in rural areas in America, people dig wells for water and provide their own septic systems for sewerage -- even the richest people. It has to be the same in Europe, of course. Nobody would pay to dig a sewer line for ten or fifty miles to serve one house.
Ignorance, even ignorance this extreme, could be forgiven. But the malice, not. Alston repeatedly excoriates the U.S. for not adopting massive new socialist-model "solutions" to ameliorate poverty that existing trillions of spending cannot solve, while seemingly remaining completely unaware that the socialist model, foisted on the world by the UN, is what keeps the real poor of the world really poor. And not U.S.-level poor, with a "poverty level" 10 times or so the world standard, and additional resources of another 30+ times the world standard provided to be sure they are comfortable in their "poverty." No, the UN keeps the world's poor in real poverty, $1.90-per-day-or-less poverty.
Given the pervasive ignorance displayed in this UN Report, and the transparently fraudulent use of poverty statistics in a way that is indigestible to anyone who knows anything about the subject, you might think that politicians in the U.S. would be smart enough to stay away from it. But, as mentioned, a June 12 letter signed by some 20 Democratic Members of Congress, led by Senators Sanders and Warren, latches onto some of the most over-the-top accusations of the UN Report as if they had some relationship to the real world:
"Specifically, the report notes, 'in a rich country like the United States, the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power.' ... We believe the massive levels of deprivation outlined in the report – as well as the immense suffering this deprivation causes – are an affront to any notion of the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Given the breadth of poverty outlined in the report, these rights are simply illusory for millions in this country."
Haley's response was: "It is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America." Thank you.
"It is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America." — U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
Francis Menton retired on December 31, 2015 after 40+ years (31 as partner) with the law firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. He currently practices law in a solo practice, and blogs at Manhattan Contrarian.
 12.7% official poverty rate times 325 million (population of U.S.) = 41.3 million people "in poverty". $1.2 trillion (amount of annual redistributions) divided by 41.3 million = approximately $29,000 per person in poverty. The $1.2 trillion figure can be found in Early's study from Cato Institute, but is also available from many other sources.