Pacific Dialogue
A broken dream: The American curse of the 'working poor'
By Peng Xuerui  ·  2024-06-18  ·   Source: NO.25 JUNE 20, 2024

The "American dream" has made U.S. people believe that as long as they work hard, people can achieve anything. However, the Report on Human Rights Violations in the United States in 2023, issued by China's State Council Information Office on May 29, pointed out that the issue of the "working poor" in the U.S. is becoming more prominent.

Many "working poor" labor tirelessly throughout the day, but their wages barely suffice to meet basic needs, and they lack adequate social security. Structural poverty and institutional inequity and exclusion have gradually turned this issue into a chronic problem in American society.

In October 2023, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Olivier De Schutter released a report criticizing several large American companies for contributing to in-work poverty. This type of poverty is characterized by precarious employment, low wages and nonexistent benefits.

In the U.S., minimum wage positions are common, but the labor market lacks corresponding supervision and management mechanisms. Unions that traditionally protect workers' rights are often absent or marginalized, leading to widespread violations of workers' rights. Many workers struggle in poverty, unable to cover even basic living expenses. Meanwhile, the cost of living in the U.S. continues to rise due to high prices and the burden of ongoing interest rate hikes. Currently, more than 29.9 million people, including 14.8 million children, live in 11.5 million low-income working families in the U.S.

Economic liberalism, an ideology that supports a market economy based on individualism and private property in the means of production, requires the market to self-regulate supply and demand through laissez-faire policies. However, when this kind of liberalism operates within an unjust institutional framework, it inevitably will exacerbate the gap between rich and poor, promote social inequality, and perpetuate systemic and structural poverty—ultimately leading to the issue of the "working poor." 

American sociologist Matthew Desmond argues that poverty results from three quintessentially American habits: the exploitation of those deprived, the subsidization of those well-off and the intentional clustering of rich and poor into separate communities, resulting in hoarded opportunities and limited social mobility. "Help from the government is a zero-sum affair," Desmond also reminds us. "The biggest government subsidies are not directed at families trying to climb out of poverty but instead go to ensure that well-off families stay well-off. This leaves fewer resources for the poor."

The "working poor" face not only discrimination and injustice, but also systematic exclusion at the institutional level, leaving them unable to access labor protections or meet basic living needs through employment.

The U.S. is the only high-income country without universal health coverage. Between April and October 2023, over 10 million adults and children were terminated from its Medicaid health insurance program.

Regular people may find themselves burdened with steep medical expenses, with minority communities at an even greater risk of encountering exorbitant bills.

At the same time, powerful interest groups in the medical sector impede U.S. national health policy reforms through hefty political donations, turning the healthcare system into a profit-driven enterprise at the expense of ordinary citizens' access to medical care.

Poverty in the U.S. is a direct consequence of inadequate social policies, and institutional exclusion further pushes the "working poor" into even more isolated and helpless situations.

Despite this, the U.S. obviously demonstrates a clear lack of commitment to addressing the problem, disregarding the survival and development needs of the lower classes and discounting internationally recognized human rights standards. It has yet to approve United Nations human rights conventions such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The ICESCR recognizes the right to work, the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, and housing, the right to social security, the right to health, the right to education, and the right to participate in cultural life and enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications. The CEDAW intends to eliminate discrimination against women in various areas including political, economic, social, cultural, civil and family life.

The essence of human rights embodies the rights and welfare that a person should enjoy as a human being, with the rudimentary requirement being that basic survival and development are fully protected. Only when basic survival, life safety, basic adequate living standards and physical health are effectively protected, can individuals realize other rights.

Though the country claims that "all men are created equal," the problem of the "working poor" reflects the current inability of the U.S. to maintain the basic survival and development of its people. BR

The author is a researcher with the Human Rights Institute at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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