Monday, December 18, 2017

U.N. investigator reports on extreme U.S. poverty, decries pollution and disease in Alabama

Activist Aaron Thigpen shows Philip Alston a sewage pool. (Photo: Connor Sheets,
A United Nations team that investigates extreme poverty and human rights around the world turned its gaze on the United States earlier this month with a two-week tour of cities and towns, at the invitation of the American government. The team's conclusion? In a report published Dec. 15, Philip Alston, the UN's special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote, "The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty."

Though the U.S. is one of the world's wealthiest countries, Alston reports, it has startling inequalities compared to other developed countries: Its health-care expenditures are much higher, but there are fewer doctors and hospital beds per person than in other developed countries; Americans tend to live shorter and sicker lives, are more obese, have the highest youth poverty rate, and the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world.

The Australian-born investigator said that he also saw positive steps, such as an "amazing" community health initiative in Charleston, W.Va., that gives 21,000 patients free medical and dental care, and "extraordinary resilience and community solidarity in Puerto Rico." But people in Alabama's Black Belt are "suffering the most dire sewage disposal crisis of any place he has visited in a developed country," Connor Sheets reports for

Alston toured communities in the Black Belt's Butler and Lowndes counties "where residents often fall ill with ailments like E. coli and hookworm - a disease of extreme poverty long eradicated in most parts of the U.S., in part because they do not have consistently reliable access to clean drinking water that has not been tainted by raw sewage and other contaminants." Alston told Sheets that what he saw in rural Alabama was "very uncommon in the First World."

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