Looking at U.S. Poverty From a Revolutionary Internationalist Perspective

Recently the U.S. Census Bureau released statistics showing that the poverty rate in the United States has risen.  This has been widely covered in the media,(1) (2) used by different sides in U.S. politics, and also given by many on the nominal left as confirmation of oppression of a supposed Amerikan “proletariat” in the U.S. (3)    A closer look at the figures from an internationalist perspective tells another story about these data.

The raw figures show that by the definition of poverty in the U.S., over 46 million people, 1 of every 6 person on average, were in poverty in 2010, an increase of over 4 million from the year before, and the highest number in 52 years since the Census collected this kind of information.  This is due to the current economic downturn and the austerity that follows it.

One thing to note is that those in poverty in Amerika are a minority of the population.  For the mainstream and majority of Amerika they are doing well comparatively.  The median Amerikan income is $49,445, which was lower than the year before but still high overall.  In comparison, in many poor countries the majority of the population is in poverty.  Imperialism has made it so that the majority of its population lives in comparative comfort.

National Oppression

A close look at the poverty figures shows that the poverty rates on an Amerikan level are broken down by nationality, often referred to as “race.”  The poverty rates are higher for non-whites than whites, an obvious result of the history of national oppression in the United States.  The overall poverty rate is 15.1 percent.  But for whites the poverty rate is 9.9 percent.  For Blacks, it is at 27 percent, and Latinos it is at 26 percent.  Furthermore Asians have a poverty rate of 12.1 percent.  The news articles do not mention poverty rates for Native Americans but another article cites it at over 25 percent, with it likely being higher for those confined to reservations. (4)

All this is the result of national oppression by European settlers who conducted genocide of First nations, brought Africans into slavery, and invaded and annexed half of Mexico.  The results of this history are evident in the income inequality being broken down based on race and nationality.  A graph of Amerikan poverty shows poverty is highest in states that have large populations of non-white peoples.

With the growing bourgeoification of the captive nations and national minorities in the U.S., these figures may get closer in the future, but it is evident now that for those in poverty, few are in the dominant White nation.

Age and Poverty

The figures show that poverty is more concentrated among younger people than older people.  By their nature young people are in states of transition, so often their poverty is short term.  As in this recent economic downturn, many are moving in with their parents, which is not the most ideal option but still better than many options available.  The rate of poverty for those under 18, especially children, is the highest, but the Census statistics do not count non-cash assistance such as food stamps and earned income tax credits, so these numbers are often overstated.

Relative and absolute poverty on a Global Scale

Looking at poverty on a global level, it is much different.  Here are the definitions of poverty from top international institutions.

From the United Nations:

“Fundamentally, poverty is a denial of choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity. It means lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society. It means not having enough to feed and clothe a family, not having a school or clinic to go to, not having the land on which to grow one’s food or a job to earn one’s living, not having access to credit. It means insecurity, powerlessness and exclusion of individuals, households and communities. It means susceptibility to violence, and it often implies living in marginal or fragile environments, without access to clean water or sanitation. (5)

And the World Bank definition:

Poverty is pronounced deprivation in well-being, and comprises many dimensions. It includes low incomes and the inability to acquire the basic goods and services necessary for survival with dignity. Poverty also encompasses low levels of health and education, poor access to clean water and sanitation, inadequate physical security, lack of voice, and insufficient capacity and opportunity to better one’s life.(6)

From these definitions, hardly anyone in the United States suffers from absolute poverty.  Even by the definition of “deep poverty” in the United States, which is defined as income of $11,000 a year (or half the nominal poverty level), is at 6.7 percent of the population.  Even those who are poor in the  U.S. and the rest of the First World for that matter, have access to food, clothing, shelter, running water, education, information, and overall broader life choices.

With this it has been pointed out about the high level of  poverty in the U.S. relative to other industrialized countries.  According to Reuters: “The United States has long had one of the highest poverty rates in the developed world. Among 34 countries tracked by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only Chile, Israel and Mexico have higher rates of poverty.” (1)  This is understandable when looking at these countries.

Israel, like the United States, is a settler state, and most of its poverty exists among its Arab population.

Chile, on which September 11 was the anniversary of the U.S. backed coup that brought the fascist dictator Pinochet to power, was used as a testing ground for extreme free market policies implemented by the Chicago Boys, right-wing economists from the University of Chicago led by Milton Friedman. The result was a market-oriented society with a crushed civil society and little social safety net.

Mexico is defined as part of the Third World, albeit a wealthier part.  Mexico has many millionaires and billionaires, including media mogul Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, but with almost half the population living in poverty.  It is also worth noting that Mexico’s poverty rate is far lower than that of the United States, so the scale of poverty is much deeper. (7)

RAIM and other groups have pointed out the vast differences between the First world and the Third World in terms of income.  The poverty rate worldwide is defined as income of $2.50 a day, which nearly half the world lives on or less.  What many on the Left point out about poverty in the U.S. is a matter of income inequality.  Yet when they do point it out it comes out as Amerika-first chauvanism.

One example is a speech given by Bernie Sanders, independent senator from Vermont and a self-described socialist.  In a recent press release he also stated the fact that income inequality is higher than other comparative industrialized countries:

“The United States has both the highest overall poverty rate and the highest childhood poverty rate of any major industrialized country on earth, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. While 21.6 percent of American children live in poverty, the rate is 3.7 percent in Denmark, 5.3 percent in Finland, 6.7 percent in Iceland, 8.3 percent in Germany, 9.3 percent in France.  “I suppose we can take some comfort in that our numbers are not quite as bad as Turkey (23.5 percent); Chile (24 percent); and Mexico (25.8 percent),” Sanders said.”

Like many social democrats, Sanders is concerned not with global poverty overall but with the percentage of poverty in the United States itself.  He bemoans that the U.S. does not have the same income distribution of other comparative European social democracies, and is embarrassed that U.S. figures seem to make his country look like the Third World.  True socialism is internationalist, and puts its lot in with the interests of the majority of the world, not their own countries.  Especially when their own countries are privileged by comparison, and their wealth is gained through exploitation that keeps other nations in extreme poverty.

Many populist-leaning leftists say that if Amerikan wealth were redistributed everyone in the U.S. could live like a millionaire.  This ignores the fact that Amerikan wealth is mostly obtained through the plunder of the Third World.  Amerikans being only 5 percent of the world consume more than 25 percent of the world’s resources.  The Amerikan way of life is unsustainable on an ecological level.  If a true global redistribution happened Amerikans as a whole would have to do with much less, and not just the millionaires out there.

-Antonio Moreno

Sources:

1.  “Number of poor hit record 46 million in 2010.” http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/09/13/us-usa-economy-poverty-idUSTRE78C3YV20110913

2.  “Soaring Poverty Casts Spotlight on ‘Lost Decade’.”http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/14/us/14census.html

3.  “Record number of Americans in poverty.” http://www.wsws.org/articles/2011/sep2011/pove-s14.shtml

4.  “Native American Poverty, by Tom Rodgers.”  http://www.spotlightonpoverty.org/ExclusiveCommentary.aspx?id=0fe5c04e-fdbf-4718-980c-0373ba823da7

5.  United Nations.  http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unyin/documents/ydiDavidGordon_poverty.pdf

6.  World Bank.  http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTPOVERTY/0,,contentMDK:22569747~pagePK:148956~piPK:216618~theSitePK:336992,00.html#country1

7.  “Poverty grew in Mexico to nearly half the population, study finds.”  http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-mexico-poverty-20110730,0,6568710.story

8.  Bernie Sanders.  “Is Poverty a Death Sentence?”  http://sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/news/index.cfm?id=B93BF647-25BC-4080-BE46-8D03611F9A6E