Rew sewage flowing from exposed PVC pipes into stinking open trenches is the type of image one expects to see in a documentary on the extreme poverty in third world nations, but it’s exactly what a UN official found during a tour of rural Alabama this week.
Philip Alston, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told AL.com that parts of Alabama’s “Black Belt” face the most critical sewage disposal crisis that he has ever seen in a so-called “developed” country.
“I think it’s very uncommon in the First World. This is not a sight that one normally sees. I’d have to say that I haven’t seen this,” Alston said as he toured an area in Butler County.
Alston was visiting the area in his role as the UN official looking into “the poverty, lack of access to basic services and civil rights struggles that have plagued poor, mostly African-American residents of the state’s Black Belt region for generations.” Alabama’s Black Belt is in the southern part of the state and is named for its rich soil. It has a long history of poverty and racial discrimination.
The Australian-born UN representative also visited parts of Butler and Lowndes counties where inhabitants suffer from diseases like hookworm and E. Coli that are typical in parts of the globe with extreme poverty, but mostly absent from the developed world.
Alston condemned state and local government authorities who he says have abdicated their responsibilities to help people access basic human services like sewage management in a dereliction of their duties.
“There is a human right for people to live decently, and that means the government has an obligation to provide people with the essentials of life, which include power, water and sewage service,” Alston said. “But if the government says, ‘oh no, we’re not going to do it,’ and leaves you to install very expensive septic tanks, that’s not how it should work.”
With the census bureau estimating that nearly 41 million Americans live in poverty, the second highest percentage amongst all developed nations, the UN is investigating the human rights implications of the lack of resources dedicated to eradicating conditions such as those observed by Mr. Alston.
Despite such shameful statistics and such dire conditions, Republican politicians on both the local and national level have been pushing for budgets and tax bills that would further cut social services and lead to even more poverty around the country.
Alston sees these political decisions as the root of the problem of systemic poverty.
“The idea of human rights is that people have basic dignity and that it’s the role of the government — yes, the government! — to ensure that no one falls below the decent level,” he said. “Civilized society doesn’t say for people to go and make it on your own and if you can’t, bad luck.”
“Politicians who say, ‘there’s nothing I can do about that’ are simply wrong,” he added.
Why is it that the people who are proclaiming “America first” seem to forget that it is not a goal when it comes to levels of poverty and misery? The disparity between the wealthy members of Trump’s golf clubs and the conditions that the poorest citizens must endure is written off by conservatives as a consequence of laziness or lack of initiative on the part of the people who suffer under a structural system of inequality that makes it impossible for them to break free of their environmental constraints.
While an embarrassing report from a UN agency probably won’t do much to change that, your votes could. Until the people who enable a set of priorities that favor the already wealthy over the vast majority of the population are voted out of office, don’t expect any alteration of the current circumstances.