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Well-Being of Economically Disadvantaged Americans Similar to Poorer Countries

A new paper by Luke Shaefer, Pinghui Wu, and Kathryn Edin titled Can Poverty in America Be Compared to Conditions in the World’s Poorest Countries? challenges the claim that economically disadvantaged Americans, though poor, enjoy greater well-being than many people around the world. The authors conclude that the well-being of economically disadvantaged Americans is similar to that of people in poorer countries with significantly lower gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.

Low income Americans have higher incomes and greater consumption than the poor in poorer countries, but the researches note income and consumption are inadequate indicators of well-being. The paper analyzes life expectancy, infant mortality, homicide rates, and incarceration rates to compare the well-being between disadvantaged people in the U.S. and people in other countries.

The authors report that life expectancy in the U.S. varies significantly by race and educational attainment. In 2008, African-American men with low levels of education had a life expectancy of 66 years, which was comparable to Pakistan and Mongolia, countries with much lower GDP per capita. Highly educated white males in the U.S., by comparison, had a life expectancy of 80 years, which was comparable to Sweden, Netherlands, and Ireland, countries with GDP per capita similar to the U.S.

Infant mortality rates also varied significantly by race in the U.S. In 2011, the U.S. had an overall infant mortality rate of 5.9 for every 1,000 live births, but the rate among the non-Hispanic black population in the U.S. was 11.5, comparable to poorer countries like Tonga and Grenada.

In 2012, the homicide rate in U.S. cities with more than 200,000 residents and a poverty rate of at least 25% was 24.4 deaths per 100,000 people. If these cities were a single country, it would have the 19th highest homicide rate in the world, slightly higher than Rwanda and the Dominican Republic and slightly lower than Colombia and Brazil. The overall homicide rate for the entire U.S. was 4.7 deaths per 100,000 people.

The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world with 716 prisoners per 100,000 people, far higher than any other country. In 2010, white American males were incarcerated at a rate of 678 per 100,000 people, higher than any other country. African-American males were incarcerated at a rate of 4,347 per 100,000 people. The authors note that “the incarceration rate for African American males has no international comparison.”

Can Poverty in America be Compared to Conditions in the World’s Poorest Countries? Is available at: