Statistics on poverty in the developing world are always vague, often fudged, and usually useless.
I remember, years ago, standing in the largest slum in Nairobi. Miserable, informal huts stretched into the distance. Countless children played in open sewers; vast hordes of people trudged towards their jobs, or towards something. Smoke from cookfires hung over the scene. I realized most people in that slum had never seen a medical professional, not to mention a census worker or other government official. Nobody knows how many people live in these slums, how much money they spend, how old they are when the die, how many are born.
Yet NGOs and government agencies somehow always churn out tidy tables, economists do their regression analyses on them, and poverty statistics are published to show the world how smart and how caring we are.
Governments have good reason to manipulate these statistics for political purposes. Presumably they often do. Given the weak factual base for most of this information, it is probably easy to do so. The Indian government, for instance, claims that in the past five years the number of Indians in poverty has dropped by 51 million people. By changing the definition of “poor” — by lowering the poverty line so more Indians live “above” it — the government can claim its social programs have taken vast strides in eliminating poverty. One member of the Indian parliament, at least, called this practice into question: “Is this the poverty line or the starvation line?”
What those who live in the US need to understand, with all due humility and thanksgiving for our good fortune, is just how much better it is to be poor here than in so many other countries.