Poverty definitions are simplistic, based on globally calculated "dollars per day" numbers that ignore critical aspects of day-to-day survival in the world's poorest communities. Poverty is not just the lack of money and possessions. The World Bank defines poverty as the pronounced deprivation of well-being. The UK's Poverty and Social Exclusion project lists numerous indicators of deprivation that contribute to poverty.
In the United States, pronounced deprivation of well-being is brought on by unmanageable debt, inferior or nonexistent health care, increases in homicides and suicides and drug and alcohol deaths, unaffordable housing, outlandish higher education costs, growing painkiller dependencies, steadily diminishing work opportunities, the stress of uncertain paychecks, the threat of incarceration, the pervasiveness of elevated pollution levels and food deserts, and especially the absence of the form of social cohesiveness that supports very poor residents of villages in developing countries.
From a dollar-value point of view India has much more poverty than the United States. The great majority of India's people are in the world's poorer half, and about one-eighth of adults have less than $135 in total wealth. The impoverishment reaches extreme depths. But there's another side to poverty in India, which primarily applies to adults with total wealth of $1,000 to $7,000, nearly half the country.
Economist Angus Deaton explains: "There are necessities of life in rich, cold, urban and individualistic countries that are less needed in poor countries... An Indian villager spends little or nothing on housing, heat or child care, and a poor agricultural laborer in the tropics can get by with little clothing or transportation... Indeed, it is precisely the cost and difficulty of housing that makes for so much misery for so many Americans, and it is precisely these costs that are missed in the World Bank’s global counts."
Polish-born Karolina Goswami speaks of "Happy, friendly, and joyful people. In Indian slums you can find them everywhere, all the time. On the other hand, in America and also in many other western nations, you tend to find anger and unrest when you visit the poor areas."
Urban planning expert Jim Chappell suggests, "It seems in many ways as though America’s destitute are worse off than the most destitute people of the country we believed set the standard for the world’s most destitute people."
There are disturbing parallels between the U.S. and India in the essentials of human survival. Americans assure themselves that our nation's levels of poverty could never sink to the depths of the Mumbai slums. But there are clear signs of deterioration in a self-described "exceptional" nation, which owns 30 percent of the world's wealth but has one-eighth of its adults in debt-ridden poverty.
A 2016 report by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, Quartz found that "the US...scores dismally in most areas—such as healthcare, education, and violence." Our country also has a dismal record on poverty and inequality.
According to the Credit Suisse 2019 Global Wealth Databook, 34 million American adults are among the world's poorest 10%—because of debt. That's one out of every eight adults, approximately the same ratio as in India.
According to the World Bank, the World Population Review, and Credit Suisse, the U.S. has greater inequality than India. In both the U.S. and India, according to Credit Suisse, the richest 10% own about three-quarters of their country's wealth.
Other comparisons relate to the World Bank's definition of poverty as the pronounced deprivation of well-being:
- Homicides: Numerous sources report a higher homicide rate in the U.S. than in India.
- Suicides: Numerous sources report a higher suicide rate in India than in the U.S. (although WHO shows a higher male suicide rate in the U.S. than in India).
- Alcohol Abuse: All sources report a higher alcohol-related death rate in the U.S. than in India.
- Homelessness: Based on the best available data, the U.S. has a slightly higher rate of homelessness than India. The numbers may be understated for both countries.
The state of health care in both countries has been thrust into chaos because of the pandemic. The poorest citizens of India have some hope: in 2018 a program called Ayushman Bharat was set up to provide 500 million Indian families with health insurance.
In America, with nearly 28 million people uninsured in 2018 and over 5 million losing insurance because of COVID, states quibble over who's eligible for Medicaid, and the whole country waits for its millionaire Congressional members to address an issue that means survival for the very people they're supposed to be serving.