15 November 2005

The Independent Expert on the question of human rights and extreme poverty of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights issued the following statement today:

Arjun Sengupta, Independent Expert of the Commission on Human Rights on the question of human rights and extreme poverty, has concluded a fact-finding mission to the United States of America. The mission took place from 23 October to 8 November 2005 at the invitation of the Government.

The purpose of the mission was to consider and learn from the experience of the United States in addressing the different aspects of extreme poverty: income poverty, human development poverty and social exclusion. (See definition of extreme poverty given in the Independent Expert’s first report to the Commission on Human Rights in (E/CN.4/2005/49) .

By choosing to visit the United States, the Independent Expert 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 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 economic recovery in the United States, the incidence of poverty, including food insecurity and homelessness had been on the rise over the past years.

To get a better understanding of the obstacles faced in the fight against poverty, the Independent Expert visited six different states. In New York he visited poverty-stricken urban areas and held consultations with organizations of homeless people and various national civil society organizations and constitutional lawyers. In Immokale, Florida, the Independent Expert met with immigrant farm workers and heard about their fight to improve their living conditions. In New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he saw the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and heard testimonies from a wide section of people affected by Katrina on the impact on people living in poverty. In Jackson and the Delta region, Mississippi, the Independent Expert heard testimonies on the situations of poverty faced by many African Americans in the region. In the Appalachian mountains, Kentucky, he saw and heard about similar situations of poverty, here affecting a mainly white population. Finally, in Washington, District of Columbia, he met with officials at the Interagency Council on Homelessness, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as with research institutions and national civil society organizations, to find out more about the various Government programs to raise people out of poverty.

The Independent Expert noted that a multitude of Federal and state social benefit systems and means-tested programs 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.

“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. 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”, observed the Independent Expert.

The Independent Expert will report on his mission to the Commission on Human Rights at its sixty-second session in 2006.

The Independent Expert is appointed by the Commission to assist States, and others, to promote the full enjoyment of human rights of persons living in extreme poverty. For further information on the mandate of the Independent Expert and copies of available reports, please consult the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (