UN: American Dream Becoming American Illusion


Minnie Deffenbaugh, 75, rests on her bed during a recent Friday afternoon at the Dream Center homeless shelter. “Miss Minnie,” as staffers call her, developed a cough and was not feeling well. Lead case manager Melissa Carrol checks on her and gets her an extra blanket. The UN report contends homelessness is underestimated in America. (PHOTO BY CLARE HOWARD)

A scathing report by the United Nations Human Rights Council on extreme poverty and inequality in America was slammed by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as “patently ridiculous.” Haley then announced the United States was withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council.

But the report is being met with sobering assessments in Peoria.

Issued in June, the UN report was based on research conducted in the last two weeks of 2017. Among its findings:

  • The Tax Reform measure passed in December 2017 “overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy and worsened inequality” and pushed the country into becoming the most unequal nation in the world. The accompanying dramatic cuts in welfare programs shred crucial dimensions of a safety net already full of holes.
  • Exorbitant fines and fees for minor infractions explode into unpayable debt and incarceration. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Exorbitant “bail bonds” link pretrial detention to wealth rather than risk or justice.
  • Medical care and dental care are unavailable to many. The report said many of the poor have lost all their teeth. Lack of access to health care has resulted in the highest obesity rate in the world, the highest infant mortality rate among developed countries and childhood poverty rates that are the highest among the six richest countries in the world.
  • The percent of people in the United States who vote is significantly lower than those of other countries.
  • Racist stereotypes of the poor imply the poor are people of color, but there are eight million more poor whites than poor Blacks in America.
  • The emphasis on jobs and employment is an illusion that demands people work fulltime but at wages so low they cannot survive without government assistance. In this sense, Food Stamps are a huge indirect subsidy for firms like WalMart that pay below living wages.
  • Homeless in America are criminalized and often live in conditions below minimum standards established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
  • Rates of poverty, infant mortality, unemployment and incarceration are “shameful statistics (that) can only be explained by long-standing, structural discrimination on the basis of race, reflecting the enduring legacy of slavery.”

“But instead of realizing its founders’ admirable commitments, today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights,” the report states. “As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.”

The report concludes that these conditions are self-defeating and a vastly less expensive approach is to provide proper social protections. Current conditions are creating political leadership by the economic elites, and regulatory agencies are now staffed by political appointees with deep industry ties.

The Rev. Marvin Hightower, president of the Peoria NAACP, said the problem of systemic racism in America affects the entire society. One focus of his organization is non-stop voter registration.

“We are no longer saying “Vote because people died for your right to vote” but “Vote because your life depends on it,’” he said. “Defeat hate: vote.”

Hightower said the Supreme Court decisions on “Citizens United” and the recent “Janus” ruling eliminating fair share union dues are unethical, unbalanced and immoral.

“We are heading for a crash, and that light at the end of the tunnel is a freight train that will run over us,” he said.

People have a right to protest on the streets, but solutions come from public policy and legislation –– meaning voter participation is the key to influencing societal change, he said.

“The Bible says there will be people who are poor, but systemic poverty is manmade,” Hightower said, noting that some people who think of themselves as “religious Christians,” think those living in poverty did something that resulted in poverty. In other words, they deserve to live in poverty. For those “religious Christians,” that’s an easier explanation than confronting the obvious signs of deliberate systemic racial inequality.

Recognition of deliberately created economic inequality and preaching about it resulted in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hightower said citing a quote by Nelson Mandela:

“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity, it’s an act of justice.”

Frank Abdnour, township supervisor in Peoria, has been in office for slightly more than a year and said those born into a cycle of poverty struggle to escape.

“It is a flat falsehood to say there is no poverty in America for those who want to work,” he said. “We have a moral obligation as a very wealthy society to help people. How can anyone not acknowledge this problem! Look on any street in any town in America –– there is a serious problem with poverty.”

Township offices have closed in other communities where there was duplication of services, Abdnour said, but his office does not provide overlapping services.

When looking for efficiencies in government, he said it’s important to recognize “social welfare programs (like those provided by his office) are dwarfed by corporate welfare programs.”

He has switched from cash benefits to voucher benefits, coordinated with other agencies in the community from Dream Center to United Way and worked on getting greater benefit through greater efficiencies.

Assistance from his office covers basic necessities like rent, groceries, shoes, electricity and water. He can help people transition from a homeless shelter to an apartment by assisting with the deposit –– often a barrier even for people with jobs that pay minimum wage. Abdnour connects his clients with GED programs and other sources of help.

He is researching ways to help impoverished senior citizens get cleaning and new batteries for their hearing aides.

“We have a serious problem with poverty in this community and this country,” he said. “We need to acknowledge that and address long-term solutions. It is our moral responsibility.”

The UN report on poverty in the United States concludes: “Extreme inequality thus poses a threat not just to economic efficiency but to the well-being of American democracy.”

2 comments for “UN: American Dream Becoming American Illusion

  1. August 1, 2018 at 12:58 pm

    Great story. Would the woman in the photo be eligible for Medicaid-paid nursing home or other benefits? Does she get Social Security and Medicare? It’s a scandal for an elderly person to be homeless.

  2. Ed Dentino
    August 6, 2018 at 3:45 pm

    We have become two Americas. One is what I call the “carriage trade” people. Those with a high income earning person or two pretty high income people that make the necessities and extras of living well possible. Then, the rest of us. The evidence for the change is seen through the increase in thrift shops, dollar stores, pawn shops, yard sales. Corresponding is a decrease in the department stores that served as middle income general purpose merchandise outlets. The sum of Clare Howard’s listing of the U.N. issues is correct. It is an economic shift that is inefficient and restrictive of democracy and values. As this evolves, it will only be churches and agencies that provide safety nets. Our government, mired in demeaning and insulting statements for many who are treated as willfully poor and not deserving of help, has morphed into a negligent, illogical, and unethical mode that will not easily be contained.

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