We are a country divided. We have extreme polarized views on everything from vaccines to gun control. We also have extremes in lifestyle: from individuals so rich they incorporate themselves for protection, to people who must make the horrible choice between shelter for the night, or food for the day.
The one thing we all agree on is that something must be done about homelessness. Although we cannot come to a consensus on what, how, or whom. Because we cannot come to an agreement on how to address homelessness, extreme poverty, and barriers to success, we have a patchy, cobbled-together collection of laws and organizations working together and, often, working at odds with each other.
In December the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Phillip Alston, spent two weeks touring the halls of justice as well as skid row. He wanted to know what politicians were doing, what they were saying, and then see the reality of people living without housing. What was the outcome of this fact-finding mission? The US failed. And California really failed. As the only state Alston visited twice, San Francisco and Los Angeles, he was able to get a really good look at how we treat our most vulnerable and how we allow our most at-risk to exist.
He wrote a statement outlining what he heard, saw, and learned. His report is compelling, important, and deeply damning of our policies and social safety net. You can read the full report here, but here are the bullet points:
- US health care expenditures per capita are double the OECD) average and much higher than in all other countries. But there are many fewer doctors and hospital beds per person than the OECD average.
- US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world.
- Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy, and the “health gap” between the U.S. and its peer countries continues to grow.
- Neglected tropical diseases, including Zika, are increasingly common in the USA. It has been estimated that 12 million Americans live with a neglected parasitic infection. A 2017 report documents the prevalence of hookworm in Lowndes County, Alabama.
- In terms of access to water and sanitation the US ranks 36th in the world.
- America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of Turkmenistan, El Salvador, Cuba, Thailand and the Russian Federation. Its rate is nearly 5 times the OECD average.
- The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the OECD with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to less than 14% across the OECD.
- The Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty ranks the most well-off countries in terms of labor markets, poverty, safety net, wealth inequality, and economic mobility. The US comes in last of the top 10 most well-off countries, and 18th amongst the top 21.
- In the OECD the US ranks 35th out of 37 in terms of poverty and inequality.
- According to the World Income Inequality Database, the US has the highest Gini rate (measuring inequality) of all Western Countries
- The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality characterizes the US as “a clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league.” US child poverty rates are the highest amongst the six richest countries – Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Norway.
- About 55.7% of the U.S. voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. In the OECD, the U.S. placed 28th in voter turnout, compared with an OECD average of 75%. Registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the U.S. than just about any other OECD country. Only about 64% of the U.S. voting-age population (and 70% of voting-age citizens) was registered in 2016, compared with 91% in Canada (2015) and the UK (2016), 96% in Sweden (2014), and nearly 99% in Japan (2014).
The world is watching, and it is as disappointed as most of us are in our progress, or lack thereof. How do we find solutions? We need to see homeless people as friends and neighbors, as people. We need a robust safety net that catches those who are the most at-risk, the most desperate, the most fragile and traumatized. And we can learn from others – we don’t need to remake this wheel. Poverty, inequality, mental illness, and addiction are issues every country faces and if we are open to it, we can learn from how other countries have addressed these issues and create our own, unique, truly American, truly great plan for improving the lives within our own communities.