Poverty rates are another of those areas in which progressives push for dramatic changes and massive spending on the basis of statistical claims that the public isn’t expected to consider in depth. Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright give a good quick dip into the subject in the process of defending their research from the attack of a Vox writer:
The same patterns still hold: The United Kingdom has the largest proportion of poor children, by far, followed by the United States, with a higher child poverty rate (but not much higher) than Germany’s and Finland’s. …
It’s true that, whether you use the 100 percent or 125 percent level, the United States had more children in poverty than Finland did. But at 100 percent, our child poverty rate was almost three times as high as Finland’s (12.4 percent versus 4.6 percent). At the 125 percent level, it was only 12 percent higher (19.5 percent versus 17.4 percent).
Adjust the income line of poverty up just a bit, and suddenly the United States doesn’t look as bad. The more important point, though, is that progressives like to look at poverty as a relative measure, like “half of the median income of their own country.” That’s arguably not a measure of poverty so much as it’s an inverted measure of wealth. If a significant number of Americans with income above Finland’s median were to move there, that country’s relative poverty level would skyrocket. Again, that’s a measure of wealth, not poverty.
Dylan Matthews’s explanation on Vox is telling:
In rich countries it doesn’t make much sense to define poverty as “not having enough to meet basic material needs.” Almost no one is that poor in America — not even those earning less than $2 a day. What rich countries mean by poverty is something more like “having enough to have the bare minimum life necessary to be a part of your society.”
So, that “bare minimum” could mean a cell phone, cable, and two cars, if the country is wealthy enough that such things are common. The importance of subsidizing luxuries in a luxurious society is a discussion we should have, but it seems like the direction of the discussion is backwards. “Almost no one is that poor in America” should be the overarching point, not that it’s more difficult to provide luxuries to those at the lower end of a country’s population than it is for other countries to provide basics.