Report on the Special Report on extreme poverty and human rights on his mission to the United States

From December 1-15, 2017, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, visited the United States to evaluate government programs and policies aimed to address extreme poverty according to its human rights obligations. This report presents the findings from Alston’s tour of multiple states, meetings with government officials, and his interactions with academics and people living in poverty. He describes the landscape of poverty in the U.S. and discusses key-poverty related problems such as issues with welfare programs, unfair tax reforms, unfounded stereotypes about impoverished groups, and the criminalization of poverty. The author also offers recommendations to address the problems highlighted throughout the text. 

You can read the full text of the report here

Key findings

  • Across the United States, about 40 million people live in poverty, 18.5 million individuals live in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million people live in Third World conditions. 
  • Contrary to popular belief that America’s poor are overwhelmingly Black and Latinx, there are 8 million more poor White people than there are poor Black people.
  • The job market is extremely limited for people who have a criminal record, low educational qualifications, or those who suffer from disabilities. Furthermore, the jobs they can attain with employers such as Walmart do not allow them to make enough money to live independent of food stamps and other welfare programs. 
  • Despite claims of widespread fraud in the welfare system, a report showed that in 2015 there was about a 4 percent error rate for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and for public housing and rental assistance. In contrast, the error rate for travel pay by the Department of Defense was 8 percent. 
  • In 2016, 13.3 million, or 18 percent, of children were living in poverty and children made up 32.6 percent of people living in poverty. 
  • In 2016 alone, 14,000 people were arrested on Skid Row in Los Angeles, a 31 percent increase of arrests from 2011. 
  • In 26 states, judges can issue arrest warrants for alleged debtors at the request of private debt collectors which violates the law and human rights standards. 


  • Decriminalize being poor and instead provide social protections and a path to employment for people who are able to return to the workforce. 
  • Acknowledge the consequences of extreme inequality. 
  • Change the negative perspective many people have about taxes which has caused elected officials to instead rely on fines and fees for revenue. 

The complete list of recommendations can be found in the report. 

“In the United States, it is poverty that needs to be arrested, not the poor simply for being poor.”

Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty
United Nations General Assembly