I periodically share data showing that living standards are higher in the United States than in Europe.
My goal isn’t to be jingoistic. Instead, I’m warning readers that we won’t be as prosperous if we copy our tax-and-spend friends on the other side of the Atlantic (just like I try to draw certain conclusions when showing how many low-tax jurisdictions have higher levels of economic output than the United States).
I’m sometimes asked, though, how America can be doing better than Europe when we have more poverty.
And when I ask them why they think that’s the case, they will point to sources such as this study from the German-based Institute of Labor Economics. Here’s some attention-grabbing data from the report.
The United States has the highest poverty rate both overall and among households with an employed person, but it stands farther away from the other countries on its in-work poverty rate than its overall poverty rate. The contrast between the US and three other English-speaking countries — Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom — is particularly striking. Compared to those three nations, the United States has an overall poverty rate only a little higher but an in-work poverty rate that is much higher.
And here’s the main chart from the study, with the United States as the bottom. It appears that there twice as much poverty in the USA as there is in a stagnant economy like France.
Sounds horrible, right?
Yes, it does sound really bad. However, it’s total nonsense. Because what you read in the excerpt and see in the graph has nothing to do with poverty.
Instead, it’s a measure of income distribution.
And, if you read carefully, the study actually admits there’s a bait-and-switch.
The…approach to measuring poverty is a “relative” one, with the poverty line set at 60 or 50 percent of the median income.
Think about what this means. A country where everyone is impoverished will have zero or close-to-zero poverty because everyone is at the median income. But as I’ve explained before, a very wealthy society can have lots of “poverty” if some people are a lot richer than others.
And since the United States is much richer than other nations, this means an American household with $35,000 of income can be poor, even though they wouldn’t count as poor if they earned that much elsewhere.
This is like grading on a rigged curve. And if you read the fine print of the IZA study, you’ll see that the “poverty” threshold for a four-person household magically jumps by $16,260.
For a household of four (two adults, two children) the difference between the official US threshold and the 60-percent-of-median threshold amounts to more than $16,000 ($24,000 versus $40,260). This means that the size of the working poor population in America according to the official poverty measure is significantly lower than the size obtained in studies using a relative threshold.
In other words, you can calculate a much higher poverty rate if you include people who aren’t poor.
By the way, since the IZA report acknowledges this bait-and-switch approach, I guess one would have to say that the study technically is honest.
But it’s still misleading because most people aren’t going to read the fine print. Instead, they’ll see the main chart showing higher “poverty” and assume that there is a much higher percentage of actual poor people in the United States.
Moreover, some people may understand that there’s a bait-and-switch and simply want to help fool additional people.
And I’m guessing that this is exactly what the authors and the IZA staff expected and wanted. And if that’s the case, then the study is deliberately misleading, even if not technically dishonest.
I’ll close by stating that I don’t mind if folks on the left want to argue that market-based societies are somehow unfair because some people are richer than others. And it’s also fine for them to argue that we should be willing sacrifice some of our national prosperity to achieve more after-the-fact equality of income.
But I’d like for them to be upfront about their agenda and not hide behind dodgy data manipulation.