UN investigator meets with WVU professors to discuss poverty issues as part of U.S. tour

By Dee Thompson | Jan 22, 2018

MORGANTOWN – A United Nations investigator recently met with West Virginia University law school professors to hear about issues related to poverty and a variety of related topics.

According to the United Nations website, Professor Philip Alston, whose title is special rapporteur, focused his investigation late last year on poverty and human rights issues. Appointed by the Human Rights Council, he conducts research and analysis and reports his results to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.

He spoke with WVU law professors Jennifer Oliva, Katherine Garvey, Valena Beety and Priya Baskaran during a stop in Charleston. 

Oliva is the associate professor of law and public health and the director of the WVU Veterans Advocacy Clinic at West Virginia University College of Law. She spoke to Alston about two topics: the problems faced by disabled vets seeking access to health care in West Virginia and the opioid epidemic, which is a public health crisis.

“Specifically, I advocated that the state adopt an aggressive, evidence-based public health approach, rather than a traditional, law enforcement-centric response, to the crisis,” Oliva told The West Virginia Record.

“I hope that Mr. Alston’s trip to West Virginia and subsequent report, which shines a light on the extreme poverty in our state, motivates each and every one of us to advocate for public policies that will mitigate the suffering of our neighbors in need,” Oliva said.

Katherine Garvey, director of Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic at the WVU College of Law, spoke to Alston about the issue of wastewater treatment.  

Garvey told The West Virginia Record that she explained to Alston that “Inadequate wastewater treatment is a high priority issue in pockets throughout the country, almost any area that is isolated and poor. In West Virginia, a partial assessment identified nearly 140 communities without adequate treatment. Our Department of Environmental Protection has classified over 8,000 miles of streams and rivers as polluted with high levels of fecal bacteria. And the same problems exist in the Appalachian portion of our surrounding states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky."

Garvey hopes that Alston’s visit will have a positive impact on West Virginia, including support for continued funding for infrastructure including wastewater infrastructure funding.

Valena Beety is a professor of law and director of the West Virginia Innocence Project. She told The West Virginia Record that she spoke to Alston about the criminal justice system in West Virginia, focusing on “...the palpable stigma of being a felon in West Virginia,” explaining that “The majority of people in prison in West Virginia are locked up for non-violent offenses, most of which are drug-related. When these people are released from prison, they encounter barriers to employment, housing and treatment for addiction because they are felons and are administratively barred from resources because of their felony convictions.”  

Beety explained that law school professors were not the only ones who spoke to Alston. 

“People from around the state came to speak to Mr. Alston and the UN representatives about health, poverty, addiction, clean water, unemployment and other problems that are impacting each of us. People spoke about the suffering in their own communities, in different parts of West Virginia. It was a true coming together, and reckoning of the issues affecting all of us,” Beety said.  

Her hope is that Alston’s visit will foster continued cooperation between those working on the problems.

“The best thing from Alston's visit was how he brought people together who are working on these issues in different communities, but haven’t necessarily been working together," Beety said. "If we can work together more, and realize that some of the same issues affect all of us across the state, maybe we can make more progress.”  

Those sentiments were echoes by Priya Baskaran, associate professor of law and director of the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Law Clinic. 

“It would be wonderful for rural communities to come together and demand greater investment to ensure our citizens' needs are not forgotten," Baskaran told The West Virginia Record. "It would be wonderful to share resources and research as well.”

Baskaran explained that the complex problems facing the state demand “...a multi-faceted approach to economic development in the state if we are going to help our most vulnerable citizens.” She feels infrastructure is key. 

“We need to invest in infrastructure, statewide, as well as courting outside investors, outside companies and employers, and creating pools of money to help entrepreneurs in our existing economic sectors like tourism and university related health and sciences,” she said.

At the conclusion of his visit, Alston made a number of conclusions. 

Alston said in a statement issued in mid-December, "I have spent the past two weeks visiting the United States, at the invitation of the federal government, to look at whether the persistence of extreme poverty in America undermines the enjoyment of human rights by its citizens. In my travels through California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. I have spoken with dozens of experts and civil society groups, met with senior state and federal government officials and talked with many people who are homeless or living in deep poverty.

“There is no magic recipe for eliminating extreme poverty, and each level of government must make its own good faith decisions. But at the end of the day, particularly in a rich country like the USA, the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power. With political will, it could readily be eliminated,” he noted.

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