16 January 2013

There is no poverty in America...

... was the subject of a recent household debate. I'm talking, of course, about real, deep, absolute poverty, of the one dollar per day variety (at purchasing power parity, meaning already adjusted for the big price differences between rich and poor countries).

Exhibit A:
"By international standards the US poverty line of $23,050 corrected for exchange rates is around the average of world income, and is deemed a comfortably middle-class income in India" -- Deidre McCloskey.
Exhibit B:

A 1996 survey of users of homeless shelters and soup kitchens found a median monthly individual income of around $250 in inner cities in America (quite a lot higher than the $35 per month earned by about a billion people).

Exhibit C:

The housemate sent me a link to this paper which shows some quite shocking life expectancy outcomes for certain groups in America. If you pick out some of the very worst, you get life expectancy for black males in America of 68.7, or for Native Americans in South Dakota of 58 years. Compare this to the life expectancy of Rwandans, all Rwandans, not just those living in poverty, and you get 55 years.

And despite all this, it seems to be quite normal to feel more guilty about poverty in America or England.

Is there really poverty in America? Should we care? Can we just call it something different in America to be clear about the distinction?


Jina Moore's comments on this post below are excellent (though I think we still have some disagreements), as are her two articles in the CS Monitor about poverty in America here and here


rovingbandit said...

Thanks Jina for the very thoughtful response, and thanks for the links. I had read your "Below the line" piece before, but not "gauging poverty", and both are fantastic.

I do realise that this line of reasoning puts me alongside some very ugly conservative thinkers, which is uncomfortable, but I don't think changes my view on this issue. I do worry about inequality and disadvantage in the West. But I think that what bothers me most is how few people in the West really grasp the scale of global inequality. People in England say things like "oh yes but we have poverty here as well" or "why don't you work with disadvantaged people here", when the difference between countries is just of a whole order of magnitude bigger than the difference between most people within countries in the West. The poorest in America are still rich by Indian standards. Some university students in Kenya asked me if everyone was rich in England. And I told them yes. What I didn't tell them is that *the most unskilled low-paid* job that exists in England probably still pays more than they will ever earn. Because that just seemed cruel, even though it is most likely true (unless perhaps they blag their way into an MP position....).

And yes there is more to wellbeing than money. What we really care about is people's capabilities, as defined by Amartya Sen. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capability_approach

But guess what, money gives people choices, and it costs money to buy education and healthcare. That's why life expectancy is so much higher in richer countries. The opportunities available to even the poorest people born in America far far outweigh the opportunities available to the majority of Rwandans.

I worry that when most people in the West fail to grasp the scale of global inequality, we don't do enough to tackle it. The world really is rich enough to eliminate hunger if we really gave a shit.

jina said...

I share your worry, and I think it's true that when most people in the West fail to understand the scope of poverty, it makes it more difficult to do something about it. I disagree deeply that denying poverty in the West helps them to comprehend global poverty, and that denying poverty in the West at all makes us more likely to do something about it elsewhere. I also worry that denying poverty in the West reinforces the idea that -- and here, I parody in summary an argument others make with gravitas -- only dark-skinned people are poor, and white-skinned people are smart enough not to be poor.

But here's the part I really don't understand, Lee: Why can't we do both? Why can't we acknowledge the depth of poverty here, and acknowledge the depth of poverty elsewhere? Why must poverty be exclusive?

It's not a trade-off. It's not as if human compassion for poverty is capped at 1, and X percent is taken up by compassion for local/domestic/Western poverty, leaving only 1-X for the rest of the world, and reducing our willingness by a parallel percentage. That's not how political will works, and it's not how the moral imagination works.

We're in agreement that poverty is bad, hunger is bad, and the world would be better if fewer people suffered these circumstances. We're in disagreement that denying poverty in one country is of any utility for ending poverty in another. We also seem to be in disagreement about the depth of the problem you're denying: One in five Americans lives with hunger, according to a food security program that focuses on the issue in the United States. That's 20 percent of the richest country on earth. We're supposed to tell them their hunger doesn't matter as much as hunger in India, because India is poorer than the United States? And what then when I meet a hungry American: I'm supposed NOT to feed him, because there are hungry people in poorer countries elsewhere?

I really admire your determination to globalize our sense of obligation. But globalizing obligation -- and action -- needn't require hardening our hearts to problems at home, just because "home" is better off by various metrics than other places.

Coda: An interesting dilemma here: If all attention for poverty WERE To flow to whatever your metric of poorest-of-the-poorest-and-therefore-the-deserving-est, and policymakers were to spend all their money and attention that way, they'd be violating the duty we count on ALL governments to fulfill, and around which international aid (at least rhetorically pivots), which is the duty of a government to maintain the well-being of its own people.

Bill Harshaw said...

Maybe the Sioux in SD would be better off if the US waged a war there. From David Ignatius today in the Post on gains in Afghanistan: "Life expectancy has increased from 44 years to 60 in the past decade;
the maternal mortality rate has declined 80 percent; the under-5
mortality rate has dropped 44 percent. The number of primary health-care
facilities has increased nearly fourfold."

rovingbandit said...

Firstly on the hunger in America issue. I just don't think we're talking about the same kind of hunger. I spoke to a woman in a Nairobi slum who told me that thanks to the $20 a month she was receiving from an NGO, she could afford to feed her child and not have to listen to the child crying of hunger. Find me one mother in America who has to deal with an infant crying of hunger, and for whom $20 a month could fix that, and I think I'll concede this entire debate. But I don't think that woman exists. Let's look at child malnutrition. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 1 on 5 children are malnourished by weight. That's about 1% in America. I'm actually surprised it's as high as 1%. But that's how I would measure hunger, not by whether people are classified as food insecure due to their answer to a survey about whether they always have enough food to eat. So maybe I've disproved my own point, and that there shows 1% hunger in America?
Second, I think that there *is* a trade-off. There is a trade-off in funding, but also I think in terms of our attention and our time. Time spent thinking about ways of solving disadvantage in America is time not spent thinking about ways of solving extreme poverty. I'm not saying deny that poverty exists in America (well, I suppose literally I am, but mostly just to be provocative).

What I'm really saying is

1 - recognise the difference in severity of poverty between rich countries and poor countries
2 - recognise that this difference is really big, so big that it might actually be helpful to use different terms
3 - that not recognising these huge differences might distort our priorities and how we think about allocating resources, leading to inadequate funding and attention to the grave moral injustice of extreme poverty in poor countries, which yes, in general, is a graver injustice and more worthy of attention than "poverty" in America

rovingbandit said...

Hmmm, where's he getting his life expectancy data from? The World Bank says 48 years life expectancy.

Bill Harshaw said...

He just cites AID as his general source. Trying to backtrack there's this at the AID site: http://afghanistan.usaid.gov/en/USAID/Article/2652/Afghanistan_Mortality_Study I'm no expert, the data sound very squishy-the heading of a chart says: "Life expectancy at birth with and without taking changes in household composition into account for exposure, adjusting “Best” estimate of infant and child mortality, and for 25 percent excess South zone mortality, by sex, for Afghanistan, Afghanistan excluding the South zone, and the South zone, Afghanistan 2010" . The figures in the chart run in the low 60's.

Filip Spagnoli said...

4% of Americans live below the - still stingy - $2 a day threshold: http://wp.me/Pd52p-Nu

rovingbandit said...

Thanks Filip, fascinating numbers, though as the discussion in the Crooked Timber article makes clear, few those of those people will actually be consuming just $2 a day worth of goods due to various in-kind transfers. When poverty is measured in sub-Saharan Africa is how much people consume, so it already accounts for any non-market sources of income and any other transfers.

Paul C said...

"It's not a trade-off. It's not as if human compassion for poverty is capped at 1, and X percent is taken up by compassion for local/domestic/Western poverty, leaving only 1-X for the rest of the world, and reducing our willingness by a parallel percentage. That's not how political will works, and it's not how the moral imagination works."

Are you absolutely certain about that? Because given what we actually know about how the human mind works - for example, that willpower (which I would argue is closely related to "political will" in the aggregate) is a finite resource that needs to be allocated specifically - it seems entirely likely that compassion is also a finite resource. (Anecdatum: this is definitely true in my case.)

It simply isn't possible to care about every single person in the world equally (not in any meaningful sense, at least) and that means that we all have to make choices about where and how we allocate our compassion. There's also a political component: not all injustices are equally unjust, and I would argue that the continued impoverishment of entire countries requires more urgent attention.

None of this means that problems of inequality in richer countries, or related issues of gender, race or class, are unimportant. It just means they may be less important both subjectively (in terms of the will that we might want to allocate to them) and objectively (in terms of the will that we should allocate to them). That might seem harsh, but it also seems fair.

jina said...

We disagree about a lot. One thing worth saying: The trade-off is not in funding or time. The people who work in the State Dept or USAID on global poverty programs do not get one dollar more in their budgets, which are set by executive request and Congressional approval, if you take dollars away from the American poor. Even more acutely, they do not get one more minute in their day to work on poverty if you decide the American poor are no longer of interest to the American government. "The government" is an obfuscatory general noun here; the practicalities of how it works mean that, in fact, there is no trade-off.

But what bothers me days later is the very idea of this conversation. Here's why:

Part of the challenge of poverty -- part of what makes it difficult for social engineers to eradicate and part of what constitutes the disempowerment of living as a poor person -- is the invisibility of poverty. The poor are not the people who do the surveys that count them up. The poor do not name themselves. It is the privileged -- the educated, the politically powerful, the elite -- who delimit the poor. Like all privilege, it comes with responsibility. Part of that responsibility, I believe, is to guard against further marginalizing the poor because they don't look "as poor" as those naming them would like them to. To deny poverty because it's not bad enough for you is to further render poverty invisible. That doesn't help anyone.

Chris said...

To integrate the 'Senean' (Senien? what are the rules for this) aspect, capabilities to have access to commodities jobs and services may be the better space to think through global poverty and inequality than just income per se. Concepts of relative poverty can also be helpful - http://www.mcleveland.org/Class_reading/Amartya_Sen_Poor_Relatively_Speaking.pdf

For relevant, but less helpful for actually doing something, take on these issues, Thomas Pogge has some great insights looking at global poverty from a human rights lens - and arguing that to address the problem "we" (affluent we) should stop violating the global poor's right to not be messed with (negative rights). Incidentally, through this theory, Pogge develops a much more sensible take on a global theory of justice than Rawls's. And of course there's the Senean take on that, too, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Theory_of_Justice

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