Waylaid Dialectic

March 16, 2013

No Poverty In the USA? You have to be kidding

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:27 pm
Tags: ,

Lee, at the always excellent Roving Bandit Blog, ponders — is there really poverty in the USA? He provides some stats (contested in comments below his post) suggesting that poverty in the US is no where near as acute as it is in most developing countries.

I think it is fair to say that deprivation for most of those living under the poverty line in the US is not as acute as that experienced by those living in least developed countries. But I find it very hard to see why this means there is no poverty in the States.

If we define poverty as material deprivation causing suffering, poverty clearly exists in the US and should be called that. The fact that it is more acute in Afghanistan doesn’t make the suffering of the poor in the US any less, it simply means that poverty in Afghanistan is more severe. Just because 39C is hotter than 38C doesn’t mean that the lower temperature isn’t still a fever.

If find it really hard to see how anyone could see this any other way.

Lee also, particularly in comments, seems to suggest that it is unethical to fund anti-poverty work in the US when the money could be used to help those worse off in other countries. This is also confused, I think. It’s only even an ethical dilemma if you concede the case on the third part of the trade-off triangle: raising taxes. Were the US to raise taxes it to Scandanavian levels it could both take care of its domestic poor and give a lot more aid. You can claim that this will never happen, but taxes in the US were, in fact, a lot higher pre-Regan. And there is no reason why that isn’t the first thing we should be campaigning for here.

What is more, even if there is a trade off it doesn’t necessarily follow that the funds should flow overseas. Before you can say that you need to know how well they will work. I’m in favour of aid, and want to see more of it given, but even I concede that aid is sufficiently prone to failure that we should at least factor that calculation into our estimates of the most just way of allocating poverty alleviating spending across countries including our own.




  1. Thanks for the comments. Toby Ord lays out the case for the moral relevance of cost effectiveness considerations here:


    I would guess that on average international anti-poverty work is substantially more cost effective than anti-poverty work in the US.

    And in your analogy, I’d suggest that the magnitude of the difference is substantially larger than 1C.

    Comment by Lee Crawfurd (@rovingbandit) — March 20, 2013 @ 5:38 am

  2. Hi there Lee,

    Thanks for the comments and links.

    On the fever analogy, I think my numbers are right. The difference seems small but: 38 is ill, 39 is severely ill.



    Comment by terence — March 20, 2013 @ 8:29 am

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