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?
Don't believe me? Check out these pictures.
Someone's home in Texas:
Someone's home in New Mexico:
Someone's home in Arizona:
Someone's home in California:
Someone's home in Arizona:
A communal toilet in Texas:
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)
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?
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.