The subject of poverty in the United States has received more attention than usual following the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, coming to tour the country last year.
But how does the American situation stack up to poorer countries when it comes to extreme poverty?
Surely no one in the United States today is as poor as a poor person in Ethiopia or Nepal? As it happens, making such comparisons has recently become much easier. The World Bank decided in October to include high-income countries in its global estimates of people living in poverty. We can now make direct comparisons between the United States and poor countries.
The World Bank has set the poverty line at living on $1.90 per day, and by that metric there are about 3.2 million Americans living in this degree of poverty.
But not everyone agrees that this is a fair comparison. Necessities in the United States, and other wealthy countries, are different than those for people living in places like India and Africa.
An Indian villager spends little or nothing on housing, heat or child care, and a poor agricultural laborer in the tropics can get by with little clothing or transportation. Even in the United States, it is no accident that there are more homeless people sleeping on the streets in Los Angeles, with its warmer climate, than in New York.
Oxford economist Robert Allen took on the task of determining a more fair, needs-based poverty line to apply in wealthy nations that better reflects the reality of what it takes to get by in such places.
The result? About 5.3 million Americans living on $4 a day - nearly as many people as in Sierra Leone (3.2 million) and Nepal (2.5 million) combined.
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.
Of course, people live longer and have healthier lives in rich countries. With only a few (and usually scandalous) exceptions, water is safe to drink, food is safe to eat, sanitation is universal, and some sort of medical care is available to everyone.
Yet all these essentials of health are more likely to be lacking for poorer Americans. Even for the whole population, life expectancy in the United States is lower than we would expect given its national income, and there are places — the Mississippi Delta and much of Appalachia — where life expectancy is lower than in Bangladesh and Vietnam.