Ignore the UN’s Ranting About Poverty

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A new report from the United Nations Human Rights Council excoriates the United States, and the Trump administration especially, for neglecting “extreme poverty and human rights.”

Philip Alston, the U.N.’s “special rapporteur” on this subject, indicts our tax, welfare, criminal-justice and health-care policies. The Los Angeles Times calls it a “damning report,” and so in a way it is. What it shows is that the U.N. is wasting money, much of it provided by the U.S., on thoughtless political propaganda.

Alston's report asserts that the tax cut of December 2017 “overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy,” without so much as a footnote to back him up. The truth is more complicated.

The tax cut reduced federal tax burdens in rough proportion to how much each income group pays in federal taxes. People who make more than a million dollars a year will see their federal taxes drop by a slightly smaller percentage than other people will. On the other hand, they will do much better than most people if you measure the effect of the tax cut on their after-tax incomes. That’s what happens when you cut highly progressive federal taxes proportionally.

Which way is the right way to look at it depends on your premises about what taxes are supposed to do. The U.N.-commissioned report pretends there’s an undisputed fact of the matter and, worse, wrongly implies that federal taxes are not progressive at all. (Alston says that “many of the wealthiest citizens do not pay taxes at the rates that others do” in another footnote-less assertion.)

The report’s treatment of health care is even worse. Last year the Congressional Budget Office found that one of the Republican bills to change Obamacare would reduce the number of people with health insurance by 22 million. Much of that projected decline resulted from the bill’s abolition of the fines for people who go without insurance.

Many conservatives argued that the CBO was overestimating the effect of those fines — and in November, the CBO explained that it is in the process of lowering its estimate. Alston summarizes the issue by saying that Republicans “seek to add over 20 million poor and middle class persons to the ranks of those without health insurance.”

It’s a triple distortion. The report uses too high a number, ignores the role of voluntary choice, and acts as though Republicans intend a result when in reality they do not even believe it will happen.

Discussing poverty, Alston again takes a standard left-wing line while ignoring counterarguments. He notes, correctly, that the trillions of dollars the government has spent fighting poverty have been extremely helpful in holding poverty rates down.

But he assumes this point suffices to refute the idea that features of our welfare programs are counterproductive, and to justify placing sneer quotes about people who think those programs should be more efficient, targeted and evidence-based — sorry, “efficient,” “targeted” and “evidence-based.”

The report presents the bipartisan welfare reform of the 1990s as a humanitarian disaster that sharply increased the number of people living in extreme, $2-a-day poverty. But this trend seems to disappear when you account for non-cash benefits such as food stamps, as Scott Winship, then a researcher for the Manhattan Institute, argued in a study published in 2016. He concluded that child poverty has fallen to an all-time low since welfare reform was enacted (although he is careful not to give all the credit for that decline to the reform).

And poverty has almost certainly fallen further since Trump took office, because of the good economy — a point that Alston’s analysis for the U.N. somehow never gets around to mentioning. Reuters can be forgiven for reading the U.N. report that way: “America's poor becoming more destitute under Trump: U.N. expert” was the headline it ran.

The report ends with a rousing call for Americans to get over their obdurate refusal to pay higher taxes. “There is a real need for the realization to sink in among the majority of the American population that taxes are not only in their interest, but also perfectly reconcilable with a growth agenda.” Case closed, I guess.

The U.S. is doing much better than the U.N. suggests. The incarceration rate, for example, keeps falling, unnoticed by our rapporteur. None of this progress is a reason for complacency, of course. There are many changes we could make to fight poverty. Two policies that many conservatives and liberals would embrace are loosening requirements for occupational licenses and easing zoning restrictions on housing. The U.N. ignores both issues.

We could use a thoughtful analysis of how to build on what has worked in American anti-poverty policy and how to reform what hasn’t. But we’ll have to look elsewhere than the U.N. Human Rights Council for that.

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