By ANGUS DEATON JAN. 24, 2018 (New York Times – OP ED)
You might think that the kind of extreme poverty that would concern a global organization like the United Nations has long vanished in this country. Yet the special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, recently made and reported on an investigative tour of the United States.
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.
Properly interpreted, the numbers suggest that the United Nations has a point — and the United States has an urgent problem. They also suggest that we might rethink how we assist the poor through our own giving.
According to the World Bank, 769 million people lived on less than $1.90 a day in 2013; they are the world’s very poorest. Of these, 3.2 million live in the United States, and 3.3 million in other high-income countries (most in Italy, Japan and Spain).
As striking as these numbers are, they miss a very important fact. There are necessities of life in rich, cold, urban and individualistic countries that are less needed in poor countries. The World Bank adjusts its poverty estimates for differences in prices across countries, but it ignores differences in needs.