It’s always been difficult to compare rates of poverty across countries, in part because conditions vary so greatly. Normally, the World Bank counts those living on less than $1.90 per person, per day as the world’s very poorest.
But according to a piece published Wednesday in The New York Times, Oxford economist Robert Allen recently calculated that it makes more sense to estimate the absolute poverty line at $4 a day for rich countries like the United States while keeping it at $1.90 for poorer countries. When that adjustment is made, the results aren’t pretty:
As economist Angus Deaton writes, 1.7% of our country’s total population—or 5.3 million Americans—rank among the poorest people in the world using that metric. That’s a staggering number, particularly because it doesn’t fall far behind the 6.9 million deeply poor people living in the entire European Union.
“There are millions of Americans whose suffering, through material poverty and poor health, is as bad or worse than that of the people in Africa or in Asia,” Deaton wrote.
When it comes to poverty, the United States has always done significantly worse than its rich counterparts. It’s been well documented that America’s child poverty rate consistently ranks near the top among OECD countries. Scholars Kathy Edin and Luke Schaefer have detailed how the number of households living on $2 per person, per day has doubled—from 636,000 to 1.65 million—since 1996, the year that Bill Clinton’s welfare reform bill became law, decimating what little cash assistance existed to help the very poor in this country.
It’s also no coincidence that other rich countries—ones with robust social programs—don’t have as exorbitantly high rates of people living in abject destitution. This is a problem we already know how to solve. We could pass policies like Medicare for all, child allowances, and paid family leave. But instead, America is a country that prioritizes issues like passing extreme tax cuts for the rich, and the results of such policies could not be more clear.