The United Nations claims 18.5 million Americans live in extreme poverty, an estimate that U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called “patently ridiculous.”
Haley commented on the UN report in June at the request of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. She chided the report’s author, special rapporteur Philip Alston, for spending UN time and resources to investigate poverty in “the wealthiest and freest country in the world.”
The report stated the United States has “the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries.” Officials from the U.S. mission to the UN responded on June 22, noting that by some estimates only 250,000 Americans live in extreme poverty, and some studies show the number has gone down 77 percent since 1980.
The significant difference between the two numbers comes partially from different understandings of who counts as extremely poor, according to policy reporter Jeff Stein of The Washington Post.
The UN report defined extreme poverty as receiving an income of less than half the poverty threshold established by the U.S. Census Bureau. That definition fails to account for expenses or government benefits like Medicaid and food stamps.
The special rapporteur’s main complaint about the U.S. economy seemed to be that the United States didn’t do things the way the rest of the world thought it should.
“In practice, the United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that, while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable health care, or growing up in a context of total deprivation,” Alston wrote.
Alston also disagreed with the Trump administration about the best solution. His report blamed President Donald Trump’s recently passed tax cut as part of the problem, while Haley wrote that the growing economy was helping fix the country’s poverty.
The Trump administration’s estimate of 250,000 Americans living in extreme poverty comes from research from The Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank. Heritage pointed out that the income-based measures of poverty underrepresent the resources available to families. For every $1 of reported income, low-income families spend an average of $2.40, with the difference coming from government assistance and informal, unreported earnings, Heritage found.
“Claims of extreme poverty and widespread deep poverty are based on faulty information. They promote alarmism that generates pressure to increase welfare spending and benefits,” Jamie Hall and Robert Rector wrote for Heritage in February 2018. “Even worse, misinformation distracts attention from the real issues facing the welfare state: the prevalence of self-defeating and self-limiting behaviors such as low levels of educational attainment, low levels of marriage and work, criminal activity, drug and alcohol abuse, and poor home environments for children.”