Chris' Original Blogbeque

A fresh, vinegar-based examination of life

New Ways to measure poverty: Black AIDS %

Posted by Chris on July 31, 2008

I’m going to combine two seemingly very different articles into a post on an interesting way to measure poverty in the US.

First, at Slate.com Tim Harford writes about what he calls “a sensible way to measure poverty.” Harford is the “undercover economist” and has a very enjoyable and interesting book on the practical applications of economics with the same name.  He talks about conventional methods of measuring poverty and proposes something new.

The conventional methods include objective income threshholds used by governments such has the US poverty line, based on 1960s food budgets and since adjusted for inflation, and the European Union’s line of Below 60% of median income (meaning that it is statistically impossible to eliminate poverty).

Harford advocates the usage of subjective tests.  Every society, therefore, would measure poverty differently- not just a noticeable difference in income and wealth, but the standards of living.  A foundation proposes such a poverty measure, based on what is and is not necessary “to participate in society.”  Harford acknowledges that these measures will be controversial but argues that subjectivity is a strength, because as incomes rise, things like the Internet become necessary making those unable to afford it “poorer” (my word not his) than before.

In the other article, CNN reports that in some areas of the US, the AIDS rate of African-Americans** is greater than the rate of some African countries. (**The article uses “black”, “black americans” and “African-Americans”.  It seems like an important distinction.  If you’re going to compare the AIDS rate in America to that of Africa, it might be important that whoever does the study targets only American-born blacks.  Maybe it’s not?!  I don’t know.  But I am guessing that African immigrants have a different AIDS % rate– and it’s probably lower, actually, because I think the US  screens for that in immigration).  Of course, they look at the African countries with the lowest AIDS rates, but it is still alarming.  I’m rarely shocked or taken by surprise by such things but this honestly got me, I had no idea.

Comparing AIDS rates in Africa and the US is a bit of apples and oranges if you look at straight-up  statistics.  That is how I got in a situation where I thought of South Africa as a country with a very low AIDS rate, but am appalled to read that the black population of Washington DC has a 5% AIDS rate.

So here’s the question: is that bias unfair or Ameri-centric?  Certainly, many Americans care much less about those in Africa.  But according to Harford’s logic, it is not inherently biased to be more alarmed by the 5% of Washington DC than the 5% of South Africa.  First, there are the expectations– in one continent, you’re lucky to not have AIDS; the other, extremely unfortunate to have AIDS.  I will think a bit outside the box and give some other reasons.  In general, African life expectancy is lower, AIDS or no AIDS.  The CNN article reports that AIDS is the #1 killer of black women between 25-34.  Each case of AIDS takes many more years off life in the US than in Africa.  In Africa, AIDS acquisition and treatment is more of a problem because of other aggravating factors like lack of access to clean water, hunger, and other infectious diseases.  Without making light of the AIDS epidemic, in many cases it adds one more problem on top of many others, whereas in the US it single-handedly changes the direction and outlook of one’s life.

To look at the other side of this issue, even though you’re relatively “poorer” to have AIDS in the US, at the same time you’d much rather have AIDS here than in Africa.  Some live with HIV or AIDS for many years due to the superior health care and medicines universally available in the US.  In addition, everyday things like water and food help as well.  Furthermore, even though AIDS is much more common in Africa, culturally there is probably more stigma, even in light of the early homophobia that really cursed an AIDS diagnosis in the US.  I have heard and read firsthand accounts about how you do not discuss AIDS in several different African countries.  In the US, we have a negative socio-religious explanation for AIDS– irresponsible sexual behavior, even inherently immoral sexual perversion, is what causes AIDS.  Africa has its own, however, perhaps even more pernicious and scary to those who wish to avoid it: witchcraft.  Witchcraft, even in Christianized/Islamicized settings, lingers as an explanation for individual misfortunes.  Then, you can add the sexual immorality stigmas on top of that.

In conclusion, I’m not saying it’s better or worse to have AIDS anywhere; it’s unfortunate, sad, terrible–, whatever combination of words it takes to describe what’s going on.

But I wanted to use it as a case study of how we should look at poverty, especially in public policy and philosophical debate.  The way we act as individuals should not change that much.  We should be generous, sensitive, and desire to share in the sufferings of others no matter how relative or objective their “poverty.”  But philosophically, it’s helpful to consider the subjectiveness of poverty before making statements like “We should just be worried about people in our own country” or “How can you be so concerned about irresponsible people in America when there are so many AIDS orphans in Malawi?”.  Furthermore, it should impact the nature and goals of our public policy.  Does government have a responsibility mainly to its citizens to eradicate their problems, no matter how small or large?  Or should it set more moderate goals and then help other nations? (Which is the approach, in practice, of the US as far as I can tell).

After deciding on the goals of public policy, what is its nature?  What do we do?  Let’s say the US decides to only worry about infectious diseases within its borders.  In fact, we say that that it’s not biased to do so, because in part we want to limit our impact on spreading disease to other nations, and demonstrate our willingness to treat diseases brought by immigrants.  How do we concentrate resources?  Are the 5% of a poor population in a large city, who have many problems, the target of a multi-billion dollar campaign?  Or do we offer free Anti-Retroviral Therapy to any AIDS patient, the same amount, irregardless of where they live or what kind of medical facilities are available?

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