America’s other one percent

How many Americans live on less than $2 a day (in purchasing power terms) and so are below the international poverty line? Laurence Chandy blogs over at Brookings.

We obtain estimates of the $2 a day poverty rate in the U.S. for 2011/12 that range from 4 percent (12 million people) to zero depending on the definition of resources and the data source used…

[But] Not so fast. If we used the exact same criteria to measure poverty in the U.S. as is used by the World Bank to obtain official poverty estimates for the developing world, we would conclude that no-one in the U.S. falls under the $2 threshold. Part of the reason for this is that even the poorest people surveyed in America appear to find a way to meet their most basic material needs (valued above $2 a day) even if their reported income is zero or close to zero. Furthermore, the poor in America have access to public goods—public education, criminal justice and infrastructure—that would be the envy of the poor in the developing world.

One of his nicer points is that we don’t know because we don’t have the tools or data to measure the bottom 1% in the US. But we have the top 1% down pretty well (excepting those secret offshore accounts and actual wealth, of course). Ironically, we know all about the bottom 1% in poor countries, but almost no data on their top 1%.

My thought, the fact that we can write serious research papers trying to figure out how many Americans live under the international poverty line, and that a credible answer is “millions” is a very sad statement on the country.