One illustration of horrific poverty and inequality, he said, was the comeback of hookworm, an intestinal parasite, in the South where local governments fail to provide clean water and sanitation and force people to pay for such services themselves.
While statistics show 14 percent of Americans live in poverty, so many more people live precariously on the edge that 20 percent is a more realistic figure, he said.
For example, he cited Wal-Mart Stores Inc workers who rely on government-issued food stamps because they cannot survive on what they earn at their fulltime jobs.
The United States has the lowest rate of social mobility among the world’s rich countries, meaning “the American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion ,” he said.
“A child who is born into poverty has almost no chance of getting out of poverty in today’s United States,” he said.
“Current trends in the United States are actually undermining democracy,” he added. “Poor people have no chance of having their voices heard, no chance of influencing public policy.”
Alston said he was struck by views he encountered across the country that people see the rich as “enterprising, altruistic, hard-working, dedicated” and the poor as “losers, scammers, people trying to profit from the system.”
Those views are promoted by politicians to justify cuts in services and tax reforms that benefit the wealthy, he said.
“The spiral downwards is fueled by public policy,” he said.