Debunked: “The U.S. Ranks #1 in Child Poverty”

Authored by: Matt Palumbo

“We have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth” said socialist Senator Bernie Sanders back in 2015.

By “major” by meant among the 35 nations within the OECD nations, and there is a study to back up the claim. According to a 2012 UNICEF report, the United States ranks almost dead last when it comes to child poverty, 34th place out of 35 countries. The study also claimed that childhood poverty in the U.S. is 23.1 percent, which is 8.1 percentage points above the overall poverty rate in the U.S. in 2012 (that discrepancy will make sense later).

The fatal flaw in the study can be summarized in a single sentence: it doesn’t measure poverty, it measures inequality. Or put differently, it measures relative poverty, not absolute poverty. In context of the study’s methodology, poverty is defined as a (a child living in a) household earning below 50% of the median income in a country. That fact alone greatly exacerbates the number of “poor” in a sample, especially in countries with greater amounts of income inequality (like the U.S.).

In the U.S., real median personal income for an individual was $31,099 in 2016. The poverty threshold for an individual that year was set at $11,770. If the U.S. defined poverty by Oxfam’s criteria, the poverty line would be increased to $15,549, which would obviously increase the number of people in poverty (on paper), without changing anyone’s income. While America’s childhood poverty rate in the Census statistics (15.6 percent in 2016) is slightly higher than the overall poverty rate (12.7 percent in 2016), it’s drastically lower than the 23+ percent rate UNICEF arrived at.  Forty-eight percent lower, to be more specific.

Just take a look at some of the nations on the list that are ranked as having less child poverty than the U.S. in UNICEF’s report: Bulgaria (18.8% child poverty),  Lithuania (15.4%),  and Slovakia (11.2%).  The average monthly income in Bulgaria is $416, $655 in Lithuania, and $853 in Slovakia. Given that the U.S. poverty line for an individual is $11,770, and the average incomes for citizens in those three countries would put one below the U.S. poverty line, it’s impossible to believe they could somehow have less child poverty than the U.S.

UNICEF did issue an updated report in 2014 – this time changing the definition of poverty further, to anyone in a household earning below 60 percent of the median national income. America is a country where a full-time minimum wage worker earns more than 91.3% of the world, so it’s no surprise that UNICEF literally has to redefine poverty to portray America in a negative light.