Why are so many Americans living in dire poverty?

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is probably the best known phrase in the United States Declaration of Independence. It is supposed to be at the very fabric of society and the reason the US government was created: to protect those unalienable rights.

The 41 million Americans living in poverty may have life and liberty, but are they being denied the pursuit of happiness? Philip Alston, a UN special rapporteur crisscrossing the US in an attempt to understand why there is such extreme poverty in one of the world’s richest nations, can answer that question.

“Washington is very keen for me to point out the poverty and human rights failings in other countries. This time I’m in the US,” Alston told the Guardian.

Many will find his research staggering. In Los Angeles he met some of the city’s 55,000 homeless whose most dire need is access to toilets. One homeless enclave, Skid Row, has just nine toilets for about 1,800 people. Syrians living in UN refugee camps have better access to sanitation.

In the southern state of Alabama, Alston witnessed a hookworm epidemic in one county. The intestinal parasite, once thought to have been eradicated in the US, is thriving because of poor sanitation. Thousands of people, mostly black, live among open sewers.

Alston also witnessed extreme poverty in West Virginia and Puerto Rico.

So, should access to sanitation and basic living standards be fundamental human rights?

Alston, who delivered the preliminary findings of his mission on December 15th, joins The Stream to answer that question.

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