ABSTRACT. Some contend that the American poor are affluent by international standards, and recent survey evidence finds that Americans have deeply divided views about the conditions faced by the poor in this country. To what extent can poverty in the United States be compared to conditions in the world’s poorest nations? Few analysts have examined this question beyond “instrumental” measures of poverty such as income and consumption that only indirectly capture well-being. The current paper compares world statistics with available U.S. evidence to examine this question based on four direct indicators of wellbeing: 1) life expectancy; 2) infant mortality; 3) risk of homicide, and 4) risk of incarceration. By these metrics, well-being is highly stratified in the U.S. by income, education, and race. In 2008, life expectancy for low-educated African American males was equivalent to that observed in Pakistan, Bhutan, and Mongolia. In 2011, the infant mortality rate for non-Hispanic African Americans ranked below that of Tonga and Grenada. In 2012, cities in the U.S. with populations of more than 200,000 and poverty rates above 25% had an average homicide rate that would make them the 19th deadliest place in the world. In 2010, the incarceration rate for African American males was 4,347 per 100,000 of the national population, which has no international comparison. Consistent across all four indicators, among Americans at the bottom of the economic ladder, quality of life looks similar to what is experienced in countries with per-capita economic output that is a small fraction of that in the U.S.

Keywords: poverty; U.S.; life expectancy; infant mortality; homicide; incarceration

How to cite: Shaefer, H. Luke, Pinghui Wu, and Kathryn Edin (2017), “Can Poverty in America Be Compared to Conditions in the World’s Poorest Countries?” American Journal of Medical Research 4(1): 84–92.

Received 7 October 2016 • Received in revised form 10 January 2017
Accepted 10 January 2017 • Available online 25 January 2017


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School of Social Work,
Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy,
University of Michigan
Department of Economics,
School of Social Work,
University of Michigan
Department of Sociology,
Bloomberg School of Public Health,
Johns Hopkins University

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