How Americans Feel About Global Poverty, In Three Charts

CREDIT: Shutterstock

In a new study ranking the developed world’s contribution in 2013 to reducing poverty and suffering in the developing world, the United States ranks near the bottom. We tied for 19th out of 27, behind countries like Ireland, which is coming off a financial crisis far more threatening than ours, and Spain, where unemployment hovers around 26 percent.

What’s going on? In this case, the simplest explanation explanation might be one of the best: Americans care more about helping people near to them than those further away.

The new study comes from the Center for Global Development, a well-regarded think tank that focuses on development issues. CGD developed a “Commitment to Development” Index, which measured the contributions a country made to help people in need around the world in six different sectors. That doesn’t just mean the quality and quantity of foreign aid and private charity; in the “security” sector, for example, a country lost points when it sold weapons to repressive governments and gained it for contributing to U.N. peacekeeping operations. They also measured the impacts of a country’s immigration policy, trade barriers, financial investments, environmental protection, and technology development — each of which can have dramatic effects on people in dire straits.

Here are CGD’s findings for 2013. Each bar represents the sum total of a country’s contribution to saving lives across all six sectors, segmented by color to see which areas each country is doing the best in:



In every sector but trade, the United States does less to help the world’s most vulnerable than the average developed country. Why?

It’s really hard to pinpoint one single cause of America’s lag in each of CGD’s sector. Saying that America’s failure to tackle climate change and our massive arms exports are “caused” by the same thing would be a very dire oversimplification.

But the fact that some countries appear to more consistently support efforts to address global poverty suggests something more subtle. Even though the political factors that shape policy in each of these sectors may be quite different, the end result in each is marked by a relatively lack of attention to the needs of people in developing countries. That indicates consistently limited consideration of those concerns in American policymaking.

The simplest possible explanation is that some countries believe it’s more imperative to help those nearer to you than those further away. People in advanced democracies generally believe that governments have a fundamental obligation to make their citizens’ lives better, but they don’t always extend that same basic obligation to people living in foreign lands. The more people in one country care about the welfare of people outside it, the more their governments are likely to reflect that belief in policy.

Lauren Prather, a PhD student at Stanford, spends her life studying this exact question with respect to people’s attitudes on foreign aid. In a 2011 paper, Prather found a clear relationship between citizens’ support for foreign aid and the amount their country gives:

Prather 1

CREDIT: Lauren Prather

The bulk of Prather’s paper attempted to explain what, exactly, about a country’s citizens made it more or less likely to support robust foreign aid. Interestingly, she found strong support both inside the United States and around the world for one finding in particular: the more altruistic a nation’s citizens are, in terms of both their personal charitable giving and their support for welfare state policies, the more likely they are to support foreign aid as well. That makes sense: though the United States has a less generous welfare state than most of the developed world, its citizens give charitably at marginally higher levels. Our public and private giving, put together, tracks with our dismal-but-not bottomed-out generosity.*

But domestic generosity isn’t all there is to it. Prather conducted another study this year, asking a sample of 1000 Americans to evaluate a hypothetical government hunger relief. The sample was split along two lines: whether the program gave poor people cash or food, and whether the program gave to hungry Americans or hungry foreigners. The result? A majority of Americans supported giving both food and money to their conationals, while a majority supported cutting both entirely for foreigners:


CREDIT: Lauren Prather

What this suggests, then, is that Americans, either implicitly or explicitly, are committed to a particular moral vision, one where citizenship matters a great deal in setting the scope of our moral obligations. That’s an important part of why, as the CGD study found, our policy doesn’t appear especially focused on the problem of global poverty.

*The East Asian countries at the bottom make this a bit more complicated and, indeed, Prather’s research suggests foreign aid policy is about more than just individual generosity. But, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not looking for a monocausal explanation, just one contributing factor.