Muslim response to poverty in America

SHAFAQNA – When the Western world is only a few days before Christmas, most people are thinking about the presents they are getting and the presents they are giving, the menu for the big day is being reviewed and tweaked, the house is being decorated, the halls decked with boughs of holy, but this extravagant holiday is not so easily celebrated by all people in America or Europe.

This week, U.S President Donald Trump’s tax bill passed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Indeed, the bill was rushed through Congress at lightning speed.

According to Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and rights, Trump’s tax bill is nothing less than “America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world” and threatens to increase inequality in income.

There is great poverty in America. There is a high rate of homelessness. The Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty has ranked the 21 wealthier countries in terms of poverty and labor markets, as well as wealth inequality, safety net and economic mobility; according to the Stanford Center, the United States comes in the bottom five, at 18.

Trump’s bill proposes a drop in corporate tax rate from 39.6 percent to 21 percent. It is predicted that these cuts will add $1.5 trillion to the deficit. To counteract this deficit, less money will be spent on federal health care and social welfare programs.According to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the poverty rate in the U.S. is 13.5 percent, that is over 40 million people. Other estimates put the poverty rate at 14.3 percent. However, the fact that the Census Bureau and other institutions arrive at their figures via surveys must be taken into account. Surveys are sent to all U.S. households, those who are in the military and those who are homeless are not included.

And then there are detailed breakdowns of this poverty rate. For single-parent families with just a father present the poverty rate was 14.9 percent. For single-parent families with just a mother present the rate was 28.2 percent. 29 percent of people living with a disability were living with poverty – 4 million people are not just challenged by a disability, but are also challenged by chronic poverty. And 19.7 percent of all children lived in poverty. That is, in the United States of America, one child in every five is living in poverty.

Trump’s tax bill also makes it no longer compulsory for Americans to purchase health insurance. And this is happening alongside the cutting of funds for Medicare. Healthcare is one of America’s black holes, and it is about to become an even denser deeper black. Infant mortality rates in 2013 were higher in the United States than in any other developed country. Although what the United States spends on healthcare is double the average of other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, there are fewer doctors and hospital beds in America than in its counterparts.

Alston said: “Given the extensive, and in some cases unremitting, cuts that have been made in recent years, the consequences for an already overstretched and inadequate system of social protection are likely to be fatal for many programs, and possibly for those who rely upon them.”

Before writing his report, Alston made a tour of the United States. He visited California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington. His last stop was Puerto Rico. This United States territory has severe levels of poverty. Many Puerto Ricans are suffering even more after the last hurricane. A third of the island has no working electricity and tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have no access to clean water. In fact, the United States as a whole ranks 36th in the world in terms of access to clean water and sanitation.

Back on the mainland, Aston singled out Alabama as a region with extremely severe poverty – the worst in the developed world. Alston’s comments in the report are striking: “The United States is one of the world’s richest and most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.”

As Alston says, all this is happening in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Let this not be misunderstood. The American government is not miserly; it does not mind spending money in the least. According to Business Insider: “In 2015, the U.S. will have a declared military and defense budget of $601 billion, which is more than the next 7 highest spending countries combined.” Last month, the Senate passed a $700 billion defense policy bill for 2018. There is money to be spent. The American government is spending it. But not on improving the daily lives of its citizens.

Alston describes what he saw during his two-week tour of the United States:

“I have seen and heard a lot over the past two weeks. I met with many people barely surviving on Skid Row in Los Angeles, I witnessed a San Francisco police officer telling a group of homeless people to move on but having no answer when asked where they could move to, I heard how thousands of poor people get minor infraction notices which seem to be intentionally designed to quickly explode into unpayable debt, incarceration, and the replenishment of municipal coffers, I saw sewage-filled yards in states where governments don’t consider sanitation facilities to be their responsibility, I saw people who had lost all of their teeth because adult dental care is not covered by the vast majority of programs available to the very poor, I heard about soaring death rates and family and community destruction wrought by opioids, and I met with people in Puerto Rico living next to a mountain of completely unprotected coal ash which rains down upon them, bringing illness, disability and death.”

Alston also said that while the U.S. is committed to ensuring democracy and human rights throughout the world, regardless of the cost of innocent human life, it fails to deliver the same rights and protections for those living in the country.

“In practice, the United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable healthcare, or growing up in a context of total deprivation”With poverty comes disenfranchisement. Many poverty-stricken people do not have cars, and therefore do not have driver licenses. Without this form of identity, voting is impossible. Even if people without cars do apply for a driver license, many DMVs have been relocated, making it difficult for the poor to get the necessary ID. These unfair ID requirements mean that the wealthy sectors of society have a greater say in who rules the government and how they rule. The poor, even if not disenfranchised, remain apathetic when faced by the reality that big business dictates the agenda.

It must not be forgotten that it was the Rust Belt who helped Trump come to the White House. The Rust Belt is a region of the United States that has suffered greatly in recent years. In states like Pennsylvania, Ohio or West Virginia, factories and mines have been closed down, one by one. Factories have been relocated in places where labor was cheaper, and the residents of the Rust Belt have found themselves without a paycheck. But even with new technology and automation, any new factories, if built, will not be employers of great numbers of needy people. The promise of making America Great Again rang true to the Rust Belt listeners. They heard “jobs.” But making America Great Again appears to be making America’s rich even richer, and marginalizing the marginalized, disenfranchising the disenfranchised to an even greater degree.

Alston’s report is not entirely negative: “I saw an energized civil society in many places, I visited a Catholic Church in San Francisco … that opens its pews to the homeless every day between services, I saw extraordinary resilience and community solidarity in Puerto Rico, I toured an amazing community health initiative in Charleston, West Virginia that serves 21,000 patients with free medical, dental, pharmaceutical and other services, overseen by local volunteer physicians, dentists and others.”

The most interesting aspect of poverty in America is indeed those who are helping to tackle it. Among the CSOs that help to fight off poverty, there are many that are faith-based. And many of these are Muslim charities.

There are a large number of Muslim charities in the United States. Many are located in major cities, like Los Angeles, Chicago or New York. In 2013, the Muslim charity Helping Hand for Relief and Development was listed among the top 10 charities in the United States. Islamic Relief USA (IRUSA) is also another major force among Muslim charities. Over Thanksgiving this year, IRUSA handed out free turkeys, along with all the trimmings, to over 2,000 families in need. IRUSA also goes into action during natural disasters. The Disaster Response Team has helped people affected by wildfires in California, or those hit by Hurricanes. They help people to clean up and to rebuild homes damaged by natural disasters.

Another Muslim charity, ICNA relief, has spent nearly half a million in Domestic Disaster Relief, with over 2 million dollars going to Women’s Transitional Housing, and over one million dollars going to Hunger Prevention. They also donate great amounts to refugees, free clinics and getting kids back into school.

And these are just a few examples. Trump wants to ban Muslims from traveling to the United States. His administration seems bent on making American Muslims feel as unwelcome as possible. But there are many American citizens who are waiting for their Muslim neighbors to reach out a helping hand. And the Muslims, despite being harangued by Trump, just keep helping.

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