Thursday, June 28, 2018

How Many Deeply Impoverished Americans Are There?

WaPo  |  The Trump administration says the United Nations is overestimating the number of Americans in “extreme poverty” by about 18.25 million people, reflecting a stark disagreement about the extent of poverty in the nation and the resources needed to fight it.

In May, Philip G. Alston, special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights for the U.N., published a report saying 40 million Americans live in poverty and 18.5 million Americans live in extreme poverty.

But in a rebuke to that report on Friday, U.S. officials told the United Nations Human Rights Council there only appear to be approximately 250,000 Americans in extreme poverty, calling Alston's numbers “exaggerated.”

The rift highlights a long-running debate among academics over the most accurate way to describe poverty in America, one with enormous implications for U.S. policy-making and the nation's social safety net. It also sheds light on the ongoing feud between Trump and U.N. officials over Alston's report on American poverty, with U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley last week calling the report “politically motivated” and arguing it “is patently ridiculous for the U.N. to examine poverty in America.”

But who is right about the number of Americans in extreme poverty?

It depends on how you define it.

The U.N.'s numbers come from the official Census definition that has been kept for decades by the U.S. government, defining extreme poverty as having an income lower than half the official poverty rate, Alston said in an interview. (For 2016, that was about $12,000 a year for a family of four.) By this criteria, the poverty rate in America has only slightly ticked downward since the mid-1960s.