The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An explosive U.N. report shows America’s safety net was failing before Trump’s election

A United Nations official is criticizing President Trump's policies on poverty. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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A new United Nations report is getting plenty of national media attention for predicting President Trump will exacerbate hardships for America's poor by weakening the nation's safety net.

“The policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship,” says the report, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council of the U.N. General Assembly.

The United Nations' attack on the White House has generated a flurry of articles, with several seizing on the claim that America will grow more destitute under Trump.

But while many experts do think Trump is making life harder for the poor, America's poverty rate has likely gone down — not up — since he took office because the economy as a whole continues to improve, according to poverty experts.

What is really striking about the report is how dire conditions were for America's poor even before Trump took office.

Among countries in the developed world, the report says, America already has the highest rates of youth poverty, infant mortality, incarceration, income inequality and obesity.

‘We would literally not survive’: How Trump’s plans for the social safety net would affect America’s poorest

Americans “live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies,” the report says.

About 40 million Americans live in poverty, and 18.5 million live in “extreme poverty.” More than 5 million Americans live “in Third World conditions of absolute poverty.”

About 11 million Americans cycle through a jail or prison every year, with at least 730,000 people incarcerated “on any given day,” the report says.

In 2016, a “shockingly high” number of children were living in poverty — about 13.3 million, or 18 percent of them — the U.N. report states, with government spending on children near the bottom of the international pack.

These statistics largely “could not reflect the policies of the Trump administration,” since the best existing poverty data predates his inauguration, said the author of the report, Philip Alston, U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, in an interview.

In his report, Alston blames the American political system for these failings, arguing it deprives African Americans of voting rights, unfairly sends the homeless to jail, and has failed to provided health care and housing programs for its citizens.

“The persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power,” Alston writes. “With political will, it could readily be eliminated.”

Poverty experts say a range of policies enacted by Trump will make poverty both more painful and more prevalent than would have otherwise been the case but say those effects are unlikely to show up in higher overall poverty rates until after the next recession hits.

“We just don't have data to really tell us what's going on yet during the Trump administration, and my guess is, if it did, it would show poverty falling again because of the economy,” said H. Luke Shaefer, director of Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan. “But we have no reason to think the president is improving the situation and a lot of reasons to think he'll exacerbate them.”

The poverty rate has likely continued to fall during Trump's first and second years in office in part because wage growth has increased, unemployment has fallen, and most people in poverty are in the labor market.

The U.S. poverty rate reached 12.7 percent in 2016, before Trump was elected, down from 15.1 percent in 2010. That came as the unemployment rate fell from a high of 10 percent to 4.7 percent at the end of 2016. Today the unemployment rate is 3.8 percent.

Trump's biggest proposed changes to the safety net — the repeal of the Affordable Care Act passed under President Barack Obama and deep cuts to social programs called for in his federal budget — have failed to pass Congress and are not expected to pass soon.

Trump has successfully pushed through a range of other policies expected to affect the poor. These include granting states the ability to impose work requirements on Medicaid, stripping or undermining key provisions in the Affordable Care Act, pushing tougher sentencing guidelines for criminal prosecutors, ending overtime rules protecting workers and revoking legal status for groups of immigrants. Other experts say the poor are also more likely to bear the brunt of global climate change, and Trump has ended several Obama-era initiatives aimed at curbing carbon emissions.

Conservatives have defended the White House, saying introducing new work requirements will lift Americans out of poverty by encouraging them to work.

“I applaud this action by President Trump to help reduce poverty in our country through promoting opportunity and economic mobility,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement after Trump announced plans to ask executive agencies to impose work requirements.

But others, including the U.N.’s Alston, predict the president's policies will weaken a safety net that already made America among the stingiest in the world for its treatment of the poor.

“It stands to be seen what kind of effect Trump's policies will have on the poverty rate, the child poverty rate, the incarceration rate, wealth inequality, or a bunch of other factors,” said Jamila Michener, a poverty scholar at Cornell University. “But my expectation is most if not all these outcomes will look worse post-Trump than they did pre-Trump.”