The Growing Division Between the Rich and the Poor Leading to Increasingly Severe Human Rights Issues in the United States
The China Society for Human Rights Studies (CSHRS)
Although the United States claims to be the greatest power in the world, it fails to make all its citizens live comfortably. Under the cover of overall prosperity in the United States, the harsh reality is the serious division between the rich and the poor in the country. In his report on his visit to the US, which was released in May 2018, Philip Alston, a United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, pointed out that the United States has the widest gap between the rich and the poor among all Western countries. According to the report, about 40 million US citizens live in poverty, and among them, 18.5 million live in extreme poverty. More than 5 million US citizens live in a state comparable to that of the absolutely poor in the third world. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the US government’s ineffective anti-pandemic efforts have led the American people into grave human rights disasters, which have further highlighted and exacerbated the existing social and economic inequality within US society.
Part 1 Basic Trends Reflecting the Continuously Widening Division Between the Rich and the Poor in the United States
The United States has a high level of income polarization. The survey results released by the Pew Research Center on July 12, 2018, show that the gap between the rich and the poor in the United States has expanded significantly since the 1970s. According to the data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Gini coefficient for the United States reached 0.482 in May 2019, far exceeding the internationally recognized “warning line” of 0.4. The research data published by the World Socialist Web Site in December 2016 show that in 2014, the per-capita annual income of low-income US citizens, who accounted for 50 percent of the US population, was US$16,200, which was almost flat compared with the number in the 1980s, but the per-capita annual income of the top 1 percent high-income US citizens increased threefold over the same period. The research data also show that in 2014, the per-capita annual income of the high-income group equaled an ordinary worker’s lifetime income. The Business Insider website disclosed on August 15, 2016, that after deducting price factors, from 1978 to 2015, the salaries of the CEOs of the 350 largest companies in the United States increased by about 940 percent, while the salaries of ordinary workers increased by only 10 percent. The website of Boston Review reported on September 1, 2017, that in the recent 40 years, the income of the low- and middle-income groups, which accounted for about 80 percent of the US population, had increased by only about 25 percent, while the income of the high-income group, which accounted for about 20 percent of the US population, had almost doubled. As reported by the Business Insider website in January 2017, Torsten Slok, Chief International Economist of Deutsche Bank, found out that the wealth of the top 0.1 percent US households equaled the wealth of the bottom 90 percent of the US households when calculating the wealth of US households based on income levels.
The size of the middle class in the United States continues to shrink. As reported by the Associated Press on May 13, 2016, 90 percent of households from the urban middle class in the United States were faced with increasingly worse situations, and many of them fell out of the middle class. A research report published by Gallup on September 20, 2016, shows that the percentage of US citizens who categorize themselves as being middle or upper-middle class has dropped from an average of 61 percent between 2000 and 2008 to 51 percent in 2016. This means that the quality of economic life for about 25 million US citizens has plummeted drastically. A report released by the Pew Research Center on May 11, 2016, shows that the middle class no longer holds the majority in nearly 25 percent of metropolises in the United States.
Poverty rates remain high in the United States. Statistics from the United States Census Bureau in 2018 show that the number of poor people in the United States reached 38.1 million, with a poverty rate of 11.8 percent. The 2018 annual report made by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) stated that there was an underestimation in the officially published US poverty rates, and it estimated that 43.5 percent of the US population (about 140 million people) live in straitened circumstances or earn a low income. According to a report released by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality in 2017, the overall poverty rate in rural areas in the southern United States is 20 percent, and the poverty rates for African Americans and for African-American women in this region are 33 percent and 37 percent, respectively. In the rural areas of the western United States, the poverty rate for Native Americans is as high as 32 percent.
Part 2 The Division Between the Rich and the Poor Bringing Severe Adverse Effects on the Enjoyment and Realization of Human Rights
Nearly half of US households are unable to maintain an adequate standard of living. As reported by the website of USA Today on November 19, 2018, more than 5 million US citizens who worked full-time throughout the year earned an annual income below the US$15,000 poverty line, and many of them still had to support their families and children. According to a report released by the Federal Reserve in 2018, 43 percent of US households were unable to make ends meet and could only rely on loans to pay for housing, food, child care, medical care, transportation, and communication; 40 percent of US citizens did not have US$400 disposable income to cover accidental expenses such as medical emergencies or car repairs; hundreds of thousands of young people could not afford to go to college or university, and millions of people had to take on the heavy student debts. Given the long-existing structural discrimination and polarization between the rich and the poor, the US working class’s ability to resist risks has been greatly diminished. According to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics, which were released on May 28, 2020, the total number of US people who filed their initial claim for unemployment benefits between March 15 and May 23 reached 40.8 million. Vox News pointed out on April 10 that it was the most vulnerable groups that bore the brunt of the economic impact brought by the recent pandemic. According to the report, during the pandemic, the people who are most vulnerable amid layoffs are those who earn the lowest salaries, such as low-wage workers in the catering and retail industries. When the US government launched the Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”), which was intended to help small- and medium-sized enterprises, some large companies with sufficient funds took advantage of the rule loopholes to acquire huge loans, but small businesses and small shops that urgently needed loans to sustain themselves could only announce closures or layoffs, since they could not get the help.
Low-income groups are faced with the threat of hunger in the United States, even when this country’s economy is already highly developed. According to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2015, about 20 percent of children live in food-insufficient households in the United States. As reported by the website of the British newspaper The Guardian on November 26, 2015, between 2008 and 2014, at least 48.1 million US households were classified as “food-insecure” each year, and 19.2 percent of these “food-insecure” households had children who could hardly have healthy balanced diets. On August 17, 2014, the website of USA Today reported that excessively high poverty rates have led to about 14 percent of US citizens relying on food aid. Among the households that rely on food aid, 65 percent of them have at least one child under the age of 18 or an elderly person over the age of 60, and 79 percent of them buy cheap and unhygienic food to support their families. Hunger and malnutrition cost the United States more than US$160 billion a year to treat chronic diseases. According to estimates made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2015, 48 million US citizens would develop food-borne illnesses each year, of which 128,000 would need hospitalization and 3,000 would die as a result of such diseases. Forbes News reported on May 7, 2020, that a survey showed that a large number of American children were facing hunger during the pandemic. According to the survey, as of the end of this April, more than one-fifth of American households had been facing food crises, and as many as two-fifths of American households with children under 12 years of age had been facing such crises.
The homeless are living in poor conditions in the United States. The website of the British newspaper The Guardian reported on February 24, 2017, that millions of people in the United States were driven out of their homes every year because they could not afford to pay the rent. Reuters website reported on November 20, 2015, that due to inadequate supply of affordable housing and weak economic recovery in most regions, more than 565,000 people were homeless in the United States, a quarter of whom were children. Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and Hawaii have all declared a state of emergency in recent years due to an increasing number of the homeless. The website of the British newspaper The Guardian reported on December 6, 2017, that the number of homeless in New York City increased by 4.1 percent in 2016. The living conditions of the homeless are extremely poor, and many of these homeless people urgently need medical assistance or suffer from mental illness. Homeless people who live on the streets face problems such as widespread violence and lack of toilets and bathing facilities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the homeless people living on the streets have been relocated and forced to live in temporary shelters for isolation. The website of Reuters reported on April 23 that in the crowded shelters offered by the US government, it was impossible for the homeless staying there to practice social distancing, which made it easier for the virus to spread. The website of the New York Times pointed out on April 13 that the shelters for the homeless became a delayed-action bomb of a virus outbreak in New York City, as more than 17,000 people lived and slept almost side by side in those centralized shelters. The website of Nature magazine reported on May 7 that when researchers began conducting virus testing on homeless people in the United States, they found that the situation there had gotten out of control. The website of the Los Angeles Times reported on May 14 that research showed that due to the impact of the pandemic, the number of homeless people in the United States might surge by as much as 45 percent within a year, further exacerbating the public health crisis.
The poverty-induced stress makes the US people suffer from deterioration in their overall health. Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, pointed out in his report on his visit to the United States that the “health gap” between the United States and countries with the same level of development continues to widen, as the US citizens have shorter life expectancy and are more likely to die of illness. A report on the residents living in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City, which was made by Agence France-Presse (AFP) on October 14, 2015, showed that 76 percent of the residents were African Americans and nearly 40 percent of the residents lived below the poverty line and that these residents are more than twice as likely to become HIV-infected and their average life expectancy is 11 years shorter than that of the residents living in the Financial District, Manhattan. The Medical News website reported on June 13, 2017, that 15.7 million people in the United States are alcoholics and 7.7 million abuse illegal drugs. The CBS website reported on June 6, 2017, that overdose had become the leading cause of death among US citizens under the age of 50. A report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in December 2017 showed that more than 63,600 people in the United States died from a drug overdose in 2016.
US citizens who have lost their medical insurance due to poverty cannot afford medical expenses. Gallup’s annual Health and Healthcare survey, conducted between November 1 and 11, 2018, showed that 46 percent of respondents were concerned that they did not have enough money to pay for medical care. A research study by the Urban Institute in the United States in 2018 showed that Texas had as many as 4.7 million residents under the age of 65 who did not have medical insurance, accounting for 19 percent of its population. The consumer protection organization of Families USA released a report on June 20, 2012, saying that in 2010, 26,100 workers aged between 25 to 64 in the United States lost their lives due to lack of medical insurance, a 31-percent increase over 2000. This meant that in the United States, due to lack of medical insurance, an average of 72 people lost their lives every day and an average of three lives were lost every hour. The website of the British newspaper The Guardian reported on November 13, 2017, that being afraid of losing health insurance, more and more US citizens could not quit their jobs and were forced into a state that was referred by the economists as “job lock”. The website of The Atlantic Monthly reported in April 2020 that low-income people in the United States would usually delay seeing a doctor when they became ill, not because they did not want to recover, but because they had no money at all. Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of millions of people in the United States are not covered by medical insurance, when intensive care for novel coronavirus pneumonia costs as high as tens of thousands of dollars in the country. “To be or not to be” is not just a philosophical proposition of some literary work, but a realistic choice that the people at the bottom of US society have to make.
The division between the rich and the poor has led to a decline in the average life expectancy and increasing suicide rates in the United States. According to the data released by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) of the United States on December 8, 2016, the life expectancy of US citizens showed a general downward trend compared to the numbers of 2014, with US men’s life expectancy falling from 76.5 years in 2014 to 76.3 years; US women’s life expectancy falling from 81.3 to 81.2 years; all US citizens’ life expectancy falling from 78.9 to 78.8. In the meantime, the US suicide rates continued increasing. According to the data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2014, there were 41,149 suicides in the United States in 2013, an increase of about 41 percent over 1999. There is a suicide in the United States every 13 minutes, and suicide has become the 10th leading cause of death in the country, causing over twice as many human deaths than by homicide. According to the CDC’s Fatal Injury Report 2015, in the United States, there were 9.8 million adults claiming suicidal thoughts, and among them, 2.7 million had suicide plans, and 1.4 million made nonfatal suicide attempts.
Low-income groups cannot enjoy equal opportunities for education in the United States. Rich people always have significant advantages in obtaining higher education resources, which leads to an increasing public dissatisfaction with the US higher education system. As reported by the website of The Washington Post on October 10, 2018, although the distribution of IQ scores has a normal shape in both the group of children born into rich families and the group born into poor families, the former group is more likely to succeed. According to the report, the less-gifted children of high-income parents are more likely to get college diplomas than better-gifted children of low-income parents. As reported by The New York Times, in 38 US universities including famous universities such as Yale University, Princeton University, and the University of Pennsylvania, the total number of students from the top 1 percent of US households is greater than the total number of students from the bottom 60 percent of US households. A survey published by Gallup in October 2018 showed that only less than half of the US population had confidence in the US higher education system. In his report published in May 2018 on his visit to the United States, Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, pointed out that among all the affluent countries in the world, the United States had the lowest intergenerational social mobility, and that the American Dream was rapidly transforming into the “American Illusion”.
Poor children and single mothers have a hard time in the United States. The BBC reported on December 11, 2017, that according to 2016 figures, there were 13.3 million poor children in the United States, accounting for 18 percent of the US population under the age of 18. The website of the Urban Institute reported on May 18, 2017, that nearly 9 million children grew up in persistently poor households, accounting for 11.8 percent of the total US child population, and in the meantime, these persistently poor children were significantly less likely to improve their economic status than their non-poor and less-poor peers after they come of age. Many single mothers and their families in the United States live a difficult life. The Single Mothers Survival Guide website reported on September 17, 2016, that among the more than 9.6 million single US mothers, 23.2 percent were unemployed throughout the year and only 22.4 percent of the single mothers who were fired or looking for jobs could receive unemployment benefits, and that about 7.83 million children raised by single mothers lived below the poverty line.