The United Nations monitor on extreme poverty and human rights has embarked on a coast-to-coast tour of the US to hold the world’s richest nation – and its president – to account for the hardships endured by America’s most vulnerable citizens.
There is no extreme poverty in the US. OK, slight correction, absent significant mental health or addiction issues there is none.
There’s inequality, most certainly there is, but that really isn’t the same thing.
At which point, a prediction about this report, as and when it comes out.
With 41 million Americans officially in poverty according to the US Census Bureau (other estimates put that figure much higher), one aim of the UN mission will be to demonstrate that no country, however wealthy, is immune from human suffering induced by growing inequality.
That US poverty number isn’t a measure of suffering nor of inequality and it most certainly isn’t one of poverty, not even just poverty let alone extreme such.
The American poverty number (this one, the Official Poverty Measure, OPM) is, very largely and accurately enough for government work, the number of people in poverty before what government does to alleviate poverty. The other measure, SPM (Supplemental etc etc) includes some but not all of what government does to alleviate and also is pegged to median income (the OPM is pegged to an absolute real income measure). It is thus a measure of inequality, not poverty.
Sure, the US welfare state isn’t as extensive as many in Europe but still, it does move the Gini by some 10 percentage points or so. But here’s the prediction – the UN report will ignore all of that and its starting point to measure US poverty will be the OPM. As near every other international comparison of poverty does.
Fun fact – food stamps. The average payment to the average recipient (that is, the average amount that someone getting food stamps gets, not the average across the entire population) is $29 per person per week. That is enough, yes controlling for different prices across geography, to put the recipient in the top 50% of global incomes. Another fun fact. The average real income (again, adjusting for prices across geography) of the bottom 10% of Americans is within a percentage point or two of the bottom 10% in Denmark, Sweden or the UK. Yes, after adjusting for free health care and all that. The bottom 5% over there do worse (20 to 30%) than the bottom 5% over here but it simply ain’t extreme poverty anywhere.
The bottom 0.5% of Americans, the homeless etc, yep, shitty – but then that’s significant mental health or addiction problems just as it is for us here.
But as I say, the UN report will ignore all of that, won’t it?