The Absolute Poor are in America, Too

New Orleans      Angus Deaton, the Nobel prize winning economist and emeritus professor from Princeton, specializes in partnership with his wife, Anne Case, also an economist at Princeton, in examining poverty and its impacts.  Spoiler alert, this is not going to be a feel good report from the good news bears.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, he has written about the numbers of Americans that are trapped in one of the richest countries in the world in the global definition of “absolute poverty.”  The statistics he provides, many of which are not new, are not just sobering, they are maddening, especially in a political climate where Republicans in Congress and many state governors and legislators have declared war on the poor.

Deaton writes that, “According to the World Bank, 769 million people lived on less than $1.90 per day in 2013; they are the world’s poorest.  Of these 3.2 million are in the United States, and 3.3 million are in other high-income countries (most in Italy, Japan, and Spain).”  He goes on to cite the work of Oxford economist Robert Allen and his work in defining “absolute poverty lines for rich countries that are intended to match more accurately the $1.90 line for poor countries:  $4 a day is around the middle of his estimates….Once we do this, there are 5.3 million Americans who are absolutely poor by global standards.  This is a small number compared with the one for India, for example, but it is more than in Nepal (2.5 million).  Pakistan (12.7 million) has twice as many poor people as the United States, and Ethiopia about four times as many.”

Add to that his observation that life expectancy in the Mississippi Delta, which includes large parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and in Appalachia, is lower than Bangladesh and Vietnam.  He also reprises work he and Case have done that has attracted wide attention that for lower income whites with no more than a high school education, life expectancy in the United States is falling while “mortality rates from drugs, alcohol and suicide are rising: and the historical decline in mortality from heart disease has stopped.”

Yes, I understand that in percentage terms, looking at the entire US population that is not a huge number, but does that excuse the need for public policies and distribution systems to support these millions of people?  We are talking about more than 5 million people living on less than $1500 per year!   Furthermore, in the widening wealth gap in our society and economy, lets remember how we define poverty.  In 2015, in the United States, the poverty threshold for a single person under 65 was an annual income of US $11,770; the threshold for a family group of four, including two children, was US $24,250.   Absolute poverty by these definitions is 67% less per year than the American definition of poverty in those terms.

Politicians force themselves to forget that there are faces and families behind these numbers, and there are millions of stories for how they got there in the world’s richest country.  They may not be heard, and they are often invisible, but they should not be so easily ignored.


Please enjoy Heroes and Heroines by Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Thanks to KABF.