March 30, 2023

By Clarence Hightower, Ph.D.
The Anti-Poverty Soldier

Clarence Hightower, Ph.D., Director, Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties.

Nobel Laureate in economics suggests more than 5 million live in absolute poverty

…It is time to stop thinking that only non-Americans are truly poor. Trade, migration, and modern communications have given us networks of friends and associates in other countries. We owe them much, but the social contract with our fellow citizens at home brings unique rights and responsibilities that must sometimes take precedence, especially when they are as destitute as the world’s poorest people. — Sir Angus Deaton

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. — Phillip G. Alston

For some time – when discussing the abject poverty that exists in many nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America – economists, scholars, activists, politicians, and others have debated how such extreme poverty compares to the poverty of the developed world, most notably the United States where an estimated 40 million people live below the federal poverty line. It has widely been considered that extreme poverty around the globe is fundamentally different than American poverty. I’ve even made that assumption during the life of this column, while still emphasizing the detrimental effects that poverty has on the lives of so many in this country.

However, new research by Co-Chair of the New York University Law School’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice Phillip G. Alston, coupled with The World Bank’s new interpretation of how to assess poverty calls that traditional assumption into question. In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Nobel laureate in economics Sir Angus Deaton highlights both of these factors along with the latest research of Oxford University economic historian Robert Allen and Princeton University ethnographer Matthew Desmond.

Deaton states that since the World Bank began including data from “high income” nations in order to estimate the number of people living in poverty on the entire planet, “we can now make direct comparisons between the United States and poor countries.” Of the approximately 769 million people that live on less than $1.90 per day, Deaton notes that 6.5 million live in high-income nations including 3.2 million in the United States. That index of $1.90 per day (or less) means that individuals are among the poorest people in the world. Deaton adds that while the World Bank considers national price differentials when estimating global poverty, it “ignores differences in needs.”

This is where the work of Allen becomes particularly germane as he suggests that $4 per day in the United States is equivalent to the figure of $1.90 per day in other countries. And, when using that adjusted measure more than 2 million more Americas would fall into the category of absolute poverty “by global standards.” While 5.3 million Americans living in extreme poverty might not seem like a lot compared to the rest of the world, that figure places the United States above countries such as Sierra Leone and Nepal, and on even footing with Senegal and slightly below Angola.

Deaton goes on to reference both Desmond’s 2016 best-selling book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City in which he explores urban poverty and the affordable housing in Milwaukee, and the 2016 award winning text by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer $2 Dollars a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, which focuses on extreme poverty in both American cities and rural areas.
In deference to each of these works, Deaton writes that:

It is hard to imagine poverty that is worse than this, anywhere in the world. Indeed, it is precisely the cost and difficulty of housing that makes for so much misery for so many Americans, and it is precisely these costs that are missed in the World Bank’s global counts.

While acknowledging some critical factors that still plague undeveloped nations such as the lack of clean water, sanitation and infrastructure issues, and a dearth of medical care of any  kind, Deaton points out that many of the “essentials of health” are still out of reach for poor Americans and that poverty is far too often a precursor to death. To make this point, he cites the fact that life expectancy in rural communities in northwest Mississippi and the mountains of West Virginia is lower than that of some third world countries.

Deaton’s concluding argument is that American social policy must now reconsider how to address the problem of abject poverty within its own borders while allocating appropriate resources to assist those in dire need. For, as is the case in many nations of the world, adequately serving the poorest among us in America is a life and death matter.

Clarence Hightower is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104

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