On January 24, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Angus Deaton, a Nobel Memorial Prize-winning economist, in which he claimed that millions of Americans — specifically, 3.2 million to 5.4 million, depending on the poverty line used — “are as destitute as the world’s poorest people.” This is simply wrong.
To the extent that this empirical claim, by an esteemed Princeton scholar, leads policymakers to reduce international aid, or causes charitable donors to redirect their money away from the world’s most impoverished people, it is also dangerous.
Deaton flirts with the idea of redirecting money in his piece. “In my own giving, I have prioritized the faraway poor over the poor at home,” he writes. But recently, as the result of “insightful new data,” he has “come to doubt both the reasoning and the empirical support” for that view. He similarly questions why the World Bank, USAID, and Oxfam prioritize non-Americans (even as he also notes, “None of this means that we should close out ‘others’ and look after only our own”).
Shameful levels of poverty do exist in the United States
It is true that America has serious problems of poverty and inequality. These inequities have resulted in quite shocking outcomes for America’s poorest. For example, 34 percent of households surveyed in Lowndes County, Alabama, recently tested positive for hookworm. Hookworm transmission occurs by way of feces and is easy to avoid if one has modern sanitation, but in the same county, 42 percent of the sampled households were exposed to raw sewage within their home. This is a national disgrace, and it highlights the dire plight of America’s poor.