The Poorest 20% of Americans Are Richer on Average Than Most European Nations

The privilege of living in the US affords poor people more material resources than the averages for most of the world’s richest nations.

A groundbreaking study by Just Facts has discovered that after accounting for all income, charity, and non-cash welfare benefits like subsidized housing and food stamps, the poorest 20 percent of Americans consume more goods and services than the national averages for all people in most affluent countries. This includes the majority of countries in the prestigious Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), including its European members. In other words, if the US “poor” were a nation, it would be one of the world’s richest.

Notably, this study was reviewed by Dr. Henrique Schneider, professor of economics at Nordakademie University in Germany and the chief economist of the Swiss Federation of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises. After examining the source data and Just Facts’ methodology, he concluded: “This study is sound and conforms with academic standards. I personally think it provides valuable insight into poverty measures and adds considerably to this field of research.”

The “Poorest” Rich Nation?

In a July 1 New York Times video op-ed that decries “fake news” and calls for “a more truthful approach” to “the myth of America as the greatest nation on earth,” Times producers Taige Jensen and Nayeema Raza claim the US has “fallen well behind Europe” in many respects and has “more in common with ‘developing countries’ than we’d like to admit.”

“One good test” of this, they say, is how the US ranks in the OECD, a group of “36 countries, predominantly wealthy, Western, and Democratic.” While examining these rankings, they corrupt the truth in ways that violate the Times’ op-ed standards, which declare that “you can have any opinion you would like,” but “the facts in a piece must be supported and validated,” and “you can’t say that a certain battle began on a certain day if it did not.”

The Times is not merely wrong about this issue but is also reporting the polar opposite of reality.

A prime example is their claim that “America is the richest country” in the OECD, “but we’re also the poorest, with a whopping 18% poverty rate—closer to Mexico than Western Europe.” That assertion prompted Just Facts to conduct a rigorous, original study of this issue with data from the OECD, the World Bank, and the US government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. It found that the Times is not merely wrong about this issue but is also reporting the polar opposite of reality.

Poor Compared to Whom?

The most glaring evidence against the Times’ rhetoric is a note located just above the OECD’s data for poverty rates. It explains that these rates measure relative poverty within nations, not between nations. As the note states, the figures represent portions of people with less than “half the median household income” in their own nations and thus “two countries with the same poverty rates may differ in terms of the relative income-level of the poor.”

The OECD’s poverty rates say nothing about which nation is “the poorest.” Nonetheless, this is exactly how the Times misrepresented them.

The upshot is laid bare by the fact that this OECD measure assigns a higher poverty rate to the US (17.8 percent) than to Mexico (16.6 percent). Yet World Bank data show that 35 percent of Mexico’s population lives on less than $5.50 per day, compared to only 2 percent of people in the United States.

Hence, the OECD’s poverty rates say nothing about which nation is “the poorest.” Nonetheless, this is exactly how the Times misrepresented them.

The same point applies to broader discussions about poverty, which can be measured in two very different ways: (1) relative poverty or (2) absolute poverty. Relative measures of poverty, like the one cited by the Times, can be misleading if the presenter does not answer the question: Poor compared to who? Absolute measures, like the number of people with income below a certain level, are more straightforward and enlightening.