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UN: Poor in US face daunting challenges

Poor in US face daunting challenges in getting out of poverty – UN expert

Despite a multitude of federal and state social benefit systems in the United States, a raft of problems ranging from the high cost of health care to lack of low-cost housing impede people struggling to get out of poverty and can been seen as a human rights abuse, an independent United Nations rights expert said today.

“Resource constraints have limited the reach of the assistance programmes, and social discrimination has aggravated the problems in many situations resulting in poverty clearly seen as a violation of human rights,” the Independent Expert on the question of human rights and extreme poverty of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Arjun Sengupta, declared.

“If the United States Government designed and implemented the policies according to the human rights standards much of the problem of poverty could be resolved,” he added in a statement on his visit to the US last month.

By choosing to visit the US, Mr. Sengupta wanted to illustrate that extreme poverty is a societal problem irrespective of the level of income of a country, and is not only a problem of poor developing countries, but a phenomenon that is found in most countries in the world.

“The case of the United States was particularly interesting as it presented an apparent paradox: as the wealthiest country on earth, with higher per capita income levels than any other country, the United States also had one of the highest incidences of poverty among the rich industrialized nations,” the statement said.

Official statistics show that 12.7 per cent (or 37 million) of the population lived in poverty in 2004, while 15.7 per cent (45.8 million) were without health insurance coverage and 11.9 per cent of households (38.2 million people, including 13.9 million children) experienced food insecurity.

The statistics also showed a significant disparity in poverty between African Americans (24.7 per cent), Hispanics (21.9 per cent) and non-Hispanic Whites (8.6 per cent). Moreover, despite the overall US economic recovery, the incidence of poverty, including food insecurity and homelessness had been on the rise over the past years.

The Independent Expert noted that a multitude of Federal and state social benefit systems and means-tested programmes have been designed to provide assistance to poor people. At the same time, the persistent and increasing numbers of people experiencing poverty and the testimonies of people and civil society organizations indicated significant gaps in the current system.

“The high costs of health care, inadequate access to quality education and vocational training, low wages, limited protection of tenants and lack of low-cost housing, were seen to pose serious obstacles to people struggling to get out of poverty and to make many low-income families vulnerable to extreme poverty,” the statement said.

During his visit at the invitation of the Government, from 23 October to 8 November, Mr. Sengupta toured various poverty hot spots, including New York urban areas, immigrant farm workers in Florida and hurricane-devastated New Orleans,

He also visited Jackson and the Delta region in Mississippi, where he heard testimonies on the poverty faced by many African Americans, and the Appalachian mountains in Kentucky where he saw similar poverty affecting a mainly white population. In Washington, DC, he met various officials and civil society organizations.

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