Can Poverty in America Be Compared to Conditions in the World's Poorest Countries?

August 2016

H. Luke Shaefer, University of Michigan, Pinghui Wu, University of Michigan, and Kathryn Edin, Johns Hopkins University

Download '2016-07-npc-working-paper.pdf'.


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 (Sen, 1999). The current paper uses available 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. 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.

International and Cross National Comparisons of Poverty and Inequality, Research Methods