NOVEMBER 30, 2009 11:09AM

Living in a Third World country (aka The United States)

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How can this be?

I'm sure many of you are asking whether this is true.

I'll get to that in a few minutes.

But first, I need to put this post in context.

A fellow OSer, our dear friend John Knight, recently argued that the United State has the "highest per capita income in the world" (see the original comment on my friend's post) and consequently one should not question the possibility that citizens living in the U.S. may be worse off than folks living in other industrialized countries. In his words "You folks are idiots; so willing to believe anything negative about this country." Lovely comment, don't you think?

Notwithstanding the fact that the United States does not have the highest per capita income (defined as the Purchasing Power Parity or PPP) (see here also) in the world, the average or mean value only provide a partial account of what's going on. To get a better picture, it is necessary to calculate the various percentiles (that is 5%, 15%, 50% or the median, 85%, etc.), the variance (the variation observed in the data) and the skewness (the shape of the distribution) among others.

By computing these values, it is easy to find out that there are countless more people living in poverty in the U.S. than most other industrialized countries, as discussed here, here and here. Using the Human Development Index, which accounts for the PPP and the GNP, the United States still performs worse than a significant number of industrialized countries, as seen here, here and here.

It is estimated that about 60% of Americans will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between ages 25 and 75 (yesterday, the NYT reported that 1 out of 8 Americans is now on food stamps). According to a recent study, the United States has some of the highest relative poverty rates among industrialized countries, which is explained by the high median income (see above) and high level of inequality (larger variance and percentiles) (I found another study on this topic - Table 2, p. 14); you can now notice how we can already dismiss the "highest per capita income" argument raised by John Knight. Not surprisingly, people living below the line of poverty reside in rural and inner city areas (a topic discussed further below).

Can this be that bad, so much so that Americans actually live in Third World conditions?

Unfortunately, the answer is Yes. Another OSer and this blogger seem to think so too.

Don't believe me? Check out these pictures.

Someone's home in Texas:

Figure 1

Someone's home in New Mexico:

Figure 2

Someone's home in Arizona:

Figure 3

Someone's home in California:

Figure 4

Someone's home in Arizona:

Figure 5

A communal toilet in Texas:

Figure 6

Quite shocking, isn't? If I had not told you where these pictures were taken (and removed the US flag from the first one), most of you would have thought that they may have been taken in Burkina Faso, the second poorest country in the world; a country I worked in for a few months.

Someone's house in… Burkina Faso, near Bobo-Dioulasso: (note: electricity provided by two car batteries; no running water nor sewage system; interestingly, this house seems to be in better shape than those shown above)

Figure 7

Well, I was also unaware that so many Americans lived in such abysmal conditions, until recently (I'm also an American BTW). For instance, about half a million are estimated to live in these conditions in Arizona and New Mexico alone.

You see, all these pictures were taken in what we call colonias. The following report does a good job describing the characteristics of colonias (I removed the references to simplify the text):

Colonia is a Spanish term for neighborhood or community. In Texas, according to the Office of the Attorney General, a colonia is a residential area along the Texas-Mexico border that may lack basic water and wastewater systems, electricity, paved roads, and safe and sanitary housing. Colonias typically have substandard housing, inadequate plumbing and sewage disposal systems, and high concentrations of low-income residents. Colonias can also be found in many areas in the U.S., but mainly in New Mexico, Arizona, and California and Texas. Texas has both the largest number of colonias and the largest colonia population. It is estimated that there are more than 2,294 colonias in Texas.

At the federal level, Colonias are defined as any identifiable community that (1) is in the state of Arizona, California, New Mexico, or Texas; (2) is within 150 miles of the border between the United States and Mexico (except for metropolitan areas with populations exceeding 1 million); (3) is designated as a colonia by the state or county in which it is located; (4) is determined to be a colonia on the basis of objective criteria such as a lack of a potable water supply, inadequate sewage systems, and a shortage of decent, safe and sanitary housing; and (5) was in existence and recognized as a colonia prior to Nov. 28, 1990 (USCA, 1479).

Given its name, colonias are prominently populated by Hispanics. Although many residents are (legal) immigrants coming from Mexico and Central America, most are actually Americans born in the U.S. (see page 4 in the link above).

An example about the level of poverty can be observed in the figure below. One can see that more than 69% of the residents living in this particular Texan colonia live below the line of poverty. Furthermore, more than 25% live under half the line of poverty. How many of you could survive with less than $5,000 per year?

Figure 8  

There you have it, folks. I know I could write much more about colonias, but I am sure you get the picture.

You should now be aware that many Americans live in Third World conditions, without adequate sanitary housing, basic sewage facilities and running water. Is this something we should be proud of? Given what I observed recently, many 'rich' Americans (this is not a generalization, but there are many more than what I would like to see) could not care less, as seen here and here.

The next time you see a post or comment gloating about how the U.S.  does well economically, please think about your fellow Americans living along the U.S.-Mexican border (as well as those who are classified below the 15%-percentile threshold living elsewhere in the US).

On a final note, although the conditions I described above are abysmal, people living in colonias still have a relatively positive outlook on life and a good sense of belonging to the community (see page 43 in the link above). I do not think we can say this about the rest of the country.

For those interested in reading more on this subject, you can find additional information here:

PBS Documentary: The Forgotten Americans (aired December 2000)

University of Texas: Poverty in Texas: Colonias

Doebele, W. (1994). "Urban Land and Macroeconomic Development: Moving from 'Access for the Poor' to Urban Productivity," in Methodology for Land and Housing Market Analysis. Ed. G. Jones and P. Ward. London: University College London Press, pp. 44-54.

Larson, J. (1995). "Free Markets in the Heart of Texas." Georgetown Law Journal 84 (2), pp. 179-260.

Lee, C., C. Giusti, D. Lord, and M. Wieters (2010). Environment and Walking Among Underserved Rural Populations: A Case Study Exploring the Roles of Social and Physical Environments in Colonia. Paper to be presented at the 2010 Annual Conference of the Active Living Research, February 9-11, 2010, San Diego, CA.

Ward, P. (1999). Colonias and Public Policy in Texas and Mexico: Urbanization by Stealth. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press.

Ward, P., F. de Souza, C. Giusti, J. Larson, and M. May (2003). "Final Report of the CRG Colonia Lot Titling Program in Rio Grande City, Starr County, Texas." Report to the Ford Foundation and Community Resource Group. Austin, Tex.: LBJ School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin.

Ward, P., F. de Souza, and C. Giusti (2004). "Colonia Land and Housing Market Performance and the Impact of Lot Title Regularization in Texas. Journal of Urban Studies 41 (13), pp. 2621-2646.

Wilson, R., and P. Menzies. (1997). "The Colonias Water Bill: Communities Demanding Change," in Public Policy and Community:Activism and Governance in Texas. Ed. R. Wilson. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, pp. 229-274.


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I would live like that if it meant getting off "the grid". No house payment or rent. However, I'd have to figure out some kind of running water.
With your premise that you obviously researched extensively I agree...
Thanks Trig. I hope the information will be useful for others.
Great post, though very disturbing.
Mishima: I agree that it is not a very joyful read. A friend of mine who read it last night felt depressed afterwards. Often, facing reality is not fun.
JK: I totally agree that we need to stop putting our head in the sand and believe that it does not exist. Even where I live, I can see firsthand how people suffer when they have difficulties making ends meet. Thanks for dropping by.
No need to get relative about anything regarding the US of A. By any standard, all Scandanavian countries, Germany, and Japan have higher per dollar average annual incomes. And you can throw in a bunch of emirates on top of us too.

When we were in Russia, my wife got all excited about the standard of living in Moscow, and she commented on understanding why people wanted to defect. I threw water on her verbally by saying, "Which country? The Workers Paradise or the best country in the whole world?" Continental superpowers with lots of nuclear weapons and an inherent inferiority complex like to boast about how swell they are for some reason. And yes, while in Russia, I did see how homeless people live, even though it was not on the tourist itinerary.

The fact of the matter is, we are an empire in decline. The only thing that is certain is, that in ten years time, the world will be substantially different than it is now. Unfortunately, the trends are not in our favor.

Once upon a time, it was possible to talk about American exceptionalism, but not any more. We've exported too many movies and other pieces of culture along with our national treasure. As an American citizen (in my own personalliving situation) I get a huge benefit over at least 99% of the rest of the world. But I realize that huge percentages of our population are one level higher than living in a cardboard box. And you can bet that there are a lot of Americans who DO live in cardboard boxes.

It is to my personal advantage that I get to be a free rider in my lifestyle despite the fact that my lifestyle is built in part on the incredible disadvantages that the rest of the world's population lives under to support me. Bananas, anyone?

But with little bricks in the wall (like Afghanistan), we are all sliding down a slippery slope in the good ol' US of A. The pigeons will come home to roost, and we will all become more Third Worldish.

The American exceptionalists are all whistling past the graveyard (of empires),
ONL: Thanks for dropping by and sharing your experiences in Russia. When I worked in Burkina Faso, I was obviously at the top of the social hierarchy. However, it was very depressing to see the conditions my local staff was living. I was nonetheless still impressed about how they still had an affirmative attitude about life. I believe this was attributed to the fact that they did not know better. I’m aware that a framed picture of me is located someone’s wall. This is how much they loved me. The reason? I treated them as I treat my friends, which does not happen very often apparently (as they told me).
I see places that look like this in the Pacific Northwest and I saw a lot of it in Southern California when I was growing up there. We were poor, but not that poor. Here there are quite a few progressives who try to do something about it both politically and through social services, but it isn't ever enough. Having been so poor as a child, I did get food stamps and USDA food handouts, it is hard to look for me, its like there are scary ghosts and vampires in those places, but I try to help because I remember being hungry and cold.
Mish is right. Front page material - when someone puts their head into this material, complete with the detail, photos, and responsible commentary, it deserves to be valued. If even OS doesn't recognize talent and insightful reflection on issues affecting society, then who really will. I hope that you will look at some of the sites ( has a great list at the bottom of their front page) and send this on for consideration. Thanks so much for your work on this post. Wonderfully presented, even if deeply disturbing. Your points hit home!
Necessary, well-researched and well-written post. Knee-jerk reactions and people who parrot propaganda are generally devoid of rational thought or exposure to the fact. It's the old "if I believe it then it must be true mentality. I have no time for it.
No doubt many of our people are not sharing in the enormous bounty of our economy.

But make no mistake about it...this is still a better place to be poor and impoverished than anyplace else on the planet.
Kanuk, glad to see you got wrapped around this one. Pictures are worth a thousand words and you gave us both. The premise, per capita income, that got you going, is, as you contend, representative of little, especially in a nation where the high end is so exaggerated. All of those below the median and especially in the bottom 20% have much less than the least fortunate in a number of social democracies around the world. Economic life in the U.S. is life under the big top without a net.

As always, your research is impressive. Thanks for taking the time.
Honest and true. Well researched and presented.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. One thing is for sure: as a nation, the US does less with more than just about any other country on the planet today.

Excellent research, presented well. Kudos.
Thanks so much for everyone who wrote a comment! Greatly appreciated. Indeed, I spent a lot of time on this one. [EP/front page would be nice, just kiddin' ;-).] I will try to write more detailed comments tonight, as I have to leave my office very shortly.
Dr. Susan: Thanks for sharing your experiences about your childhood. I’m sorry that it was so difficult. I’m happy for you that you persevered.

Travellini: Wow, thank you for these kind words! I will check the website. It looks like my post was overlooked by the OS editor(s).
Sad to say, such conditions are getting more attention now that they've extended to formerly middle class white folk. It has never not been true for reservation dwellers, migrant workers, tenant farmers in the South, slum and ghetto dwellers, mentally ill veterans, etc.
Emma: Thanks! I agree with your comment.

Stellaa: Thank you too! Indeed, John seems to have disappeared.

Frank: Thanks. Perhaps, but I would like to see a smaller difference between the 15%- and 85%-percentile nonetheless.

Steve: I really appreciate your comment, as usual. Looking forward to your next post!

neilpaul: Totally agree about the tolerance with regards to income inequality. Very sad.

Rutilus: Thank you! This includes making me a favorite. :)

Lonnie: Thanks for dropping by!
High Lonesome: True statement. I know some people who would be considered middle-class and they are struggling to make ends meet. When you lose a job, your social status can go down very quickly.
this is one reason we need a time out on immigration
this poverty will never end as long as more poor arrive every day
There's tent cities springing up (and being bulldozed) - a lot of those foreclosed folk aren't gonna just move sideways into some comparable housing...

Amusing, but not really, Daily Show had a segment tonight about American 'refugees' moving to Mexico for the health system...
Cover nothin' - this should be on page 1 of the NYT.....or on Fox News!
There are places like those pictured in North and South Dakota as well. Especially on the reservations.
Living in poverty is unforgettable. I wonder, when we engage with it intellectually with charts and graphs, when we photograph and footnote our reports, are we really building the will to do something about poverty? I wonder. While it is painful for me to recognize it, I think that neilpaul is right, we have an enormous tolerance for income disparity here. When I was a kid I was rarely asked if I was hungry, there were very few times when someone who ought to have cared did so in any way that I could tell. I actually that those experiences I had as a child tell me more than anything anyone writes about poverty. I think there are a lot of people who just don't care, not out of malice, but because they are living spoiled lives and trained to be self-involved asshats blinded by their greed.

Weirdly, there is this sense that anyone like me who has climbed out of poverty has some terrible obligation to go back and pull a few more bodies out of the pit, while the spoiled continue to drink and dance in mindless oblivion. I don't mean that cynically or bitterly but more as an observation of how disconnected from an experience of relationship and community we are as a nation.
Hello everybody,

Thank for people who wrote a comment last night. I will respond later today. Unfortunately, my day is pretty much filled with meetings and teaching (last day!).
Kathy: Thanks for dropping by. It is important to point out that, as I discussed in the article above, most of the fellows living in colonias are Americans like you and me.

Myriad: Greatly appreciated! Other people have said the same thing (front page of the NYT) about other posts of mine (e.g., Advocating personal responsibility in health: Bullshit!.

MrsRaptor: Very true. I was also thinking about the deprived conditions in some of the native reserves when I was writing this piece. I know many have casinos, but the average reserve is most likely plagued by subpar environments (I have witnessed this in Canada).

Dr. Freeborn: Thank you again for sharing your very important views. I share your view points. Unfortunately, I’m not anticipating any changes soon, despite what I wrote above. Not happy...
What's happening all along the US-Mexico border is complex.

The Border Region encompasses 62 miles inland on either side. The map included in the link puts what we refer to as 'the border' in a whole new light. It also suggests why putting a fence between the two countries is not only impossible, but futile given the definition of the region.

In that Binational Border Region, which spans from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific, some 1900 miles, there are 12+ million residents.

School age children who live within that region, but who are Mexican nationals, ride the trolley across the actual border (Rio Grande) every day in California to attend US schools. They cross over in Texas as well. Then, cross back over into Mexico at the end of the school day at US expense, even though it's pegged as a partnership.

Environmental issues are being addressed and programs partnered by 10 states in both countries.

"Border 2012, a partnership between the United States and Mexico, is working on a broad range of environmental challenges by using expertise and financial resources from both sides of the border to address air quality, water quality, land contamination, and related health problems."
Blue Roses,

Thank you very much for providing the link to the Under Border 1012 environmental project. I was unaware that such project existed, but this is a very important one. I hope readers will also take a look at the website.

Interestingly, I know the group of researchers who has been asked to test the fence that will be sadly erected between both countries. I believe it has already been installed at many locations. According to my colleague, this endeavor is a colossal waste of money. In addition, I remember seeing a segment on Penn & Teller’s ShowTime series Bullshit on that topic a while back. It did not take very long for the “illegal immigrants” (it was filmed in Mexico if I remember; thus, they were not illegal) to go through the fence.

I'm glad you checked out the Border site -- it blew me away.

The fence that they are attempting to erect is only 600 miles (out of the 1900+) along the physical Rio Grande border. I would say that it's futile, as well, because there are so many other loopholes.

The illegals are far more sophisticated now and I'm guessing that the bulk of them (150,000/yr) pay megabucks ($5000-$10,000) to be escorted to various destinations across the country and well in to Canada.
Blue Roses,

Very true! I will drop by your post later today.
The OS Messenger doesn't seem to want to "Send" my PM to you, so here's a repost extending my comment:
you have to grow up in a glass bottle with a gold stopper not to know there is plenty of poverty in america. selective blindness, and a 'serves 'em right for being lazy' covers the occasional intrusion of reality. it's built in to capitalism.

this post is a good injection of reality, well done, but: the problem is not lack of information, it's lack of power to act. the constitution insulated the rich by creating a [plutocratic] oligarchy. until the people of america decide they want democracy, for ordinary people peace, health care, and economic security will be out of reach.
al loomis: Thanks. Good line of reasoning, but I need to point out that, before we can act, we need to properly define the problem, if not acknowledge that it exists (at least for the level of poverty I described). Unfortunately, I do not think we’re there yet, even with what I wrote. There's much more work to be done.