American Poverty and Human Rights

In December 2017, CHRGJ Faculty Director and Co-Chair Philip Alston visited the United States in his official capacity as UN Special Rapporteur. Against the backdrop of this visit, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice launched a year-long programming series to explore some of the most salient and distinctive elements of American poverty, and their multiple and intersecting impacts on human rights.

Through events ranging from lectures and panel discussions to expert roundtables and consultations held throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, CHRGJ aims to foster dialogue on a broad range of topics and examine whether human rights law, institutions, and discourse can enhance our understanding of poverty in the United States and contribute toward finding solutions.



Poverty in the United States disproportionately affects women and children, communities of color, the elderly, and people with disabilities. More than 20% of children in the United States live in families with income below the federal poverty line, and 43% of children live in low-income households, defined as those that make less than twice the federal poverty line—a level considered necessary to cover basic expenses. Racial and ethnic disparities in poverty remain stark, largely unchanged since the 1980s. Recent studies show that in the United States, 1 in 4 Black families, 1 in 4 Native American families, and 1 in 5 Latino families qualify as “poor,” compared to a rate of 1 in 10 for white and Asian-American families.

Poverty deprives people of access to goods and services—such as adequate food, housing, education, and health care—that are essential to meeting their basic needs and to fulfilling their economic and social rights. It also undermines people’s ability to exercise their civil and political rights—such as the rights to vote, to participate in public life, to freedom of expression and assembly—and heightens their risk of experiencing violence, discrimination, denial of due process, and invasion of privacy.

Examples of these violations abound, and include poverty-related health disparities; the radically unequal quality of education across class lines; the disenfranchisement of people living in poverty, particularly in communities of color; and the criminalization of poverty itself through fines, fees, and criminal justice practices that disproportionately penalize the poor.

In a country better known for being the richest economy in the world, some may find it counter-intuitive to focus on extreme poverty as a pressing human rights problem. But there are many people across the United States who survive on minimal to no cash income, and many more who struggle to put food on their tables or keep a roof over their heads, often despite working multiple jobs.

It is not possible to fully understand the human rights implications of poverty in the United States without also focusing on the top end of the income and wealth ladder, and this is something that CHRGJ’s series aims to do. Economic inequality is at record levels today, and disparities consistently fall along racial and gender lines. In our market economy, the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor facilitates political capture by wealthy elites; drives up prices for goods and services; and encourages the development of a two-tiered system, where those with means opt out of the public sector, thus undermining universal investment in government services.

The American Poverty and Human Rights series begins with a range of questions:

  • How do we conceptualize and measure poverty—in relative or absolute terms? based on income, wealth, or other factors, such as access to services, community support structures, education and health outcomes? And how does this influence our understanding of its human rights impacts?
  • How does our legal system structurally discriminate against or fail to protect people in poverty against being disproportionately policed and disparately penalized because of their economic status, e.g. through debtors’ prisons, money bail, laws on homelessness, or exploitative fines and fees that have become increasingly common as local and state governments privatize their criminal justice systems?
  • In what ways do women and ethnic and racial minorities experience poverty-related human rights violations distinctly, and at a disproportionate rate?
  • What legal tools exist domestically and internationally to halt and remedy the deprivation of human rights amongst the poorest populations—and to challenge the continued accumulation of wealth by those who already have more than they could ever need?
Issues in Focus

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Related Pages

American Poverty and Gender
Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Project
UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights
Initiative on Inequality, the Global Economy, and Human Rights

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