The World Bank has a definition of “extreme poverty,” which, in their formulation, means “living on less than $1.90 per day.” I have no idea how they picked the figure of $1.90 for the cutoff, but that certainly is a very low figure. Parsing the definition a little, notice that they use the term “living on” as the standard, rather than saying, for example, that a person has less than $1.90 per day in “income.” As you will see, the difference is significant. Anyway, the WB in its most recent (April 2019) report on this subject gives a figure of about 10% of the world’s population, or 736 million people, as “living on” resources below that very low $1.90 per day level per capita. That actually represents a large decline in the percent of people in this “extreme poverty” condition over the past couple of decades; but it still comes to a very large number of people. Whether that 10% figure is accurate or even substantially exaggerated, I have no doubt that there are still many, many people in the world who have less than $1.90 per day in resources to “live on,” and who therefore live in what could only be called deep, grinding poverty.
But the question for today is, is there any substantial number of people in the United States who live in conditions meeting this World Bank test of “extreme poverty”? And if so, how could that be, and how could such a thing be allowed to persist? Some call this the most important question out there in the field of poverty studies.
Driving this debate has been a pair of well-known researchers who have for many years been making a career pushing large numbers as being the supposed count of those in the U.S. in this “deep poverty” condition. The researchers are sociologist Kathryn Edin of Princeton and social policy guru Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan. In 2015, Edin and Shaefer published a book titled “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.” The $2.00 per day was an arbitrary rounding up of the World Bank’s equally arbitrary $1.90 per day “extreme poverty” cutoff, although besides doing that rounding the authors also switched the definition of the measurement metric from “living on” that amount or less, to having “cash income” of that amount or less. The book famously came up with a figure of some 1.2 million households with children in the United States, and 3.6 million households total, supposedly meeting the test of having cash income less than the $2 per day per capita figure.
You will not be surprised that Edin and Shaefer’s 2015 book drew excited praise — and a notable dearth of skepticism — from the usual progressive suspects. (Example — William Junius Wilson in the New York Times: “This essential book is a call to action, and one hopes it will accomplish what Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” achieved in the 1960s — arousing both the nation’s consciousness and conscience about the plight of a growing number of invisible citizens.”) Less excited was the Manhattan Contrarian, who, in a post on May 26, 2016, had this to say:
This book is completely preposterous. . . .Read More