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Third World America

UPDATE 11:20AM: accused of Detroit “poverty porn”, see response below.

As you may have noticed, this blog sees America itself as an interesting development laboratory. Others seem to agree, as a new report applies the Human Development Index to the US.

The site has a cool mapping function. Here is a map of health that locates Third World America in the Deep South and its borderlands.

Health index (pale pink BAD, brick red GOOD)

The South as Third World holds up controlling for race and gender, as the same area shows the highest concentration of white females with less than high school education.

Proportion of white females with less than high school education (dark blue HIGH, pale blue LOW)

Of course, in metro areas we have an inner city Third World hiding in plain sight.  Here is Detroit for example, right next to “First World” Pontiac:

Human Development Index (pale yellow BAD, brick red GOOD)

Street scene in Detroit

Commenters accuse Aid Watch of some kind of “poverty porn” on Detroit.

OK, I already apologized for my catastrophic bonehead mistake of carelessly applying the label “downtown” to the negative picture (now removed).

As further recompense, here is a nice happy positive picture of the real “downtown Detroit.” Unfortunately, I have to stick by the original characterization of much of Detroit as belonging to the “Third World” part of America, based on all the evidence on unemployment, poverty, etc. that I have examined in detail. It’s going to take more than a few happy pictures to fix that.

Have fun on your own exploring Third World America on this great site.

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  1. joe wrote:

    Yeah, that is really helpful, Bill. Everyone knows there are parts of the USA/UK that are of comparable standard to the worst developing countries – heck, our right-wing newspapers are constantly talking about ‘third-world Britain’, so it must be true.

    Fuel. Fire. Exaggeration. Idiocy.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 2:23 am | Permalink
  2. A horse with no name wrote:

    Isn’t America the Second World?

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 3:32 am | Permalink
  3. Jeff Rose wrote:

    Thanks for linking to some interesting maps, but without a legend you can’t really take much away from these. The south doesn’t look third world, it looks white and dark blue.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 4:52 am | Permalink
  4. Joe From Michigan wrote:

    Junk Science. It OBVIOUS that the author has never been to Pontiac or Ann Arbor.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 5:45 am | Permalink
  5. Dtownie wrote:

    Joe from Michigan is right. The author has clearly never been to Pontiac, Detroit, or Ann Arbor. That image is from ex-industrial area, not downtown Detroit. It’s not hard to find real photos of downtown Detroit. All credibility lost.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink
  6. William Easterly wrote:

    Wow, it’s hard to know what causes these vehement reactions. Yes, the word “downtown” on the Detroit picture was a labeling error, just carelessness, sorry. I actually have been to Detroit and suburbs, my home town is only 90 miles away. Maps 1 and 3 are based on congressional districts, and 2 on states, and show averages for these areas, so obviously they will miss a lot of nuance that somebody with local knowledge will have.
    The word “Third World” is taken from its long usage in development, it’s not some code wode for some political agenda.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink
  7. david phillips wrote:

    very good idea to do this. As a test of foreign aid effectiveness it would be interesting to explore whether the World Bank, USAID, or any other aid donor could successfully apply their loudly proclaimed poverty reduction strategies with any genuine success in these areas.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink
  8. brian wrote:

    david – maybe a millennium village in georgia?

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  9. Nick Gogerty wrote:

    Send in the NGOs, fire up the celebrity aid concerts, get the telethons going, we need impact studies. This country must be saved. 😉

    where’s Bono and how can I buy a t-shirt to help?

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink
  10. marijke wrote:

    It’s hard to know what causes the vehemence of these reactions? Seems pretty obvious to me. Everybody in this country has been raised on the idea that the US is first, best, fairest, rightest, and most wonderful. It’s the response of the average American Pangloss.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink
  11. Interesting maps, but the “downtown Detroit” picture and its caption seem way out of line to me.

    Here is the stream of Flickr pictures for the “downtown Detroit” keywords : – not the most developed par of the USA, but not underdeveloped either by our world’s standard.

    In selecting that picture, you made the same error as the clueless foreigners who only show Africa through pictures of starving little kids. You could have made your point without that biased presentation.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink
  12. William Easterly wrote:

    Jean-Marc, thanks for the correction, you may have missed the part above where I was already corrected and changed it accordingly. However, you did inspire me to add a picture of gleaming downtown Detroit.

    Just don’t get me started on the catastrophic looking maps of poverty and unemployment in Detroit.
    thanks, Bill

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  13. Alan Beattie wrote:

    It’s surely misleading to use the term “Third World America” because these are relative intra-US measures, not global comparisons. They tell you about within-country inequality but not absolute levels of development on an international basis.

    For example, the methodological notes tell you that the average life expectancy in the US varied from 66 to 90 – so even the poorest US state is only slightly below the global average (67 I think) – in comparison with the actual UN HDI, which uses a range of 25-85 years.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  14. Alex B. Hill wrote:

    I have to agree with Joe from Michigan, even though you say you have been to Detroit and surrounding areas you make some statements that I find surprising from someone of your academic background. As a native Michigander who has worked in the urban poor ares of both Flint, Detroit, and Pontiac as well as lived in Ann Arbor I am surprised by your generalizations. This is a very “planner” perspective. Don’t you always talk about how important nuance and local knowledge are in development?

    It seems you are making a number of mistakes that you warn others to avoid when talking about or acting on development or economic problems.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  15. Erin wrote:

    I don’t have any comments about Detroit, since I’ve never been there. But as an educated, healthy white southern female, there’s not really a whole lot about these maps that surprises me. I’ve frequently heard the Appalachian region referred to as “the Africa of America”, referencing the poor health, education, and socioeconomic status of many residents in this area, which is a stereotype that has been perpetuated almost since people began settling here. The poor health of this region has always been a point of concern, and many people would blame it on the typically unhealthy “southern cooking” that nearly everyone indulges in at least a few times of the year (namely holidays at Grandma’s house). In this vein, it would be interesting to see a map showing the numbers of diabetics and obesity. I would expect there to be a much higher frequency in the south. It’s the same with education… it’s just typically substandard. Perhaps as education systems improve, the numbers regarding health will also rise.

    I do know that people are working to improve education and health systems even though it is very difficult to accomplish in such poor areas. It’s not just an area of stagnant impoverishment that the residents have failed to recognize, as these maps might imply. And as far as the high numbers of uneducated, unhealthy, white southern females goes… that’s also not a surprise, though I would like to note that there are quite a few educated white southern females despite what that map shows :)

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  16. Alex B. Hill wrote:

    @Erin Here is a nice interactive map from the CDC of US obesity trends since 1985. You are correct that Southern states have a higher prevalence of obesity:

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink
  17. Jacob AG wrote:

    See, this is why The Economist proposed a new paradigm to replace the old idea of a “Third World.” They rather cheekily suggested that we divide the world into only two camps, the Amazon world (where Amazon can deliver to your doorstep) and the non-Amazon world. Which I think is brilliant.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  18. William Easterly wrote:


    defensively, I want to say “haven’t you ever seen a data map before?” (Along with “and that wasn’t MY map.”) Of course, a map of averages by Congressional District is going to paint a very broad brush picture that somebody with detailed local knowledge would find very distorting.

    But I actually think you have a good point when you say maps are for planners. This exercise shows just how much maps DO distort local reality. They might be good for making a very broad generalization — you have surely got to admit that there are some affluent suburbs that are doing a lot better than Detroit city proper. But you are right that it would be ludicrous for anyone to use this map to make any kind of detailed policy concerning Detroit. And no matter how much you increase the resolution and detail, you always have to leave some things out that people with local knowledge could tell you in 5 seconds.

    So thanks for helping to make one of my other favorite points — Local Knowledge Rules.

    best, Bill

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  19. April wrote:

    If Jeff Sachs shows up in my homestate of Kentucky Bill, I’ll be holding you responsible.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  20. William Easterly wrote:

    April, sorry your opinion doesn’t count as a highly educated, very healthy southern white female.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  21. I spent 10 days in Detroit in December doing research on how the city is shrinking and I found surprising how the people’s discourse of the city, the narrative of their problems and their protective proudness and need to highlight the positive resembled to the reality I knew growing up in Colombia. The same responses to the bad press that I was giving when I traveled abroad in the 90s were given to me by detroiters two months ago. And the description of the problems the city has (a description we heard from different actors coming from different social classes) left you wondering if there was a remedy to it, the same way problems in Colombia do. I felt I was in a “third world city” much more than I feel Bogotá, Medellín or most of Colombian cities are. The love and proud for the city too was as intense.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Permalink
  22. Also, speaking of downtown Detroit, it really doesn’t feel like a third world country (i will keep using third world despite my hate for that term): it feels like an end of the world city. In third world cities (the ones I have visited) everything is chaos and people, and color and street food and street commerce and things that you can’t even beging to understand, in downtown Detroit it was hard to cross paths with someone, it was hard to find a bank, it was hard to buy a coffee. Vacancy is what you see.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  23. Zach wrote:

    I am from Alabama, the “deep south”. And while it is true that it is cheaper to eat at McDonald’s than to eat something healthy I think that if you were to look at level of income and bad health it would not really vary that much based on income. We like to eat food that is deep fried or covered in cheese because it taste good not because of its price. This is a perfect example of what Mr. Easterly is talking about with the disconnect between planers and the people they are planing for. No amount of money being pumped into the south is going to change the way people down here eat. If people don’t see the need to change they never will.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink
  24. James Moore wrote:

    As someone who has in lived in the South their entire life, I believe that an in flux of money would benefit the region. Southern public education systems on the high school and middle school levels are often mismanaged and financially crippled. As the region I live in has grown in population and general wealth over the last 20 years, mostly due to Northerners moving to the area for jobs, our education system as grown and become more efficient at providing educational services. As education improves across the South people will begin to make more intelligent eating decisions.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Permalink
  25. Jacob AG wrote:

    What about Alan Beattie’s point? Aren’t the poorest in America still better off than the richest in the poorest countries? See Cathrine Rampbell:

    I think one of your earlier posts makes the point about the fallacy and utility of maps more beautifully (although you do rebuke your commenters for asking what’s the point of the post). Where’s you get those graphs (the ones in the earlier post)?

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Permalink
  26. Taylor wrote:

    I found this post to be very interesting. Most Americans are not aware of the poverty faced by many members of our country. They lack basic things other Americans take for granted, including healthy meals and an education. America is different than most other countries because we are incredibly wealthy and have many resources most other countries are not fortunate enough to have. However, at the same time we tend to turn a blind eye to the issues faced by many Americans. We try to help other third world countries around the world as much as possible, but I think we first need to turn our attention to the citizens of our own country that need our assistance.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink
  27. Alanna wrote:

    Can’t believe that no one has pointed out to horse with no name that the second world was traditionally the USSR…

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Permalink
  28. joe wrote:

    @Alanna – it appears that Bill is using his own definition of ‘third world’ to mean ‘bits of a developed country which are more deprived than the rest’.

    Which, in my opinion, is asking to be misinterpreted.

    Posted February 25, 2011 at 3:22 am | Permalink
  29. z wrote:

    All I can say is that the US better set up some internal borders to prevent the ‘brain drain’ from southern states that is evident.

    Also a study of remittances is warranted.

    Posted February 25, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink
  30. Nela wrote:

    Great article, I think it raises some valid points about how we’re so focused on “Third World” development, yet we have LOTS of our own problems to correct. I have to agree with Alan, who pointed out that we are not measuring the same thing between the USA and developing countries, with this website having a life expectancy span of 66-90 years where the UN HDI uses a 25-85 range. It is not a valid worldwide comparison, but it does point out that we have certain areas within our country that could be greatly improved.

    However, I think many of the comments left on here show a misunderstanding of Easterly’s main point, which I took to be one of growing inequalities within the United States. (The “Third World America” title is simply a title to draw your attention to the article people, so why all the bashing?!?) The USA has become one of the most unequal countries in the world, with the richest 1% of the population owning 38% of all wealth. ( This is why we see such disparities on the maps, because health and education are highly correlated with income. If you take a look at an income inequality map (ex:, you can see the same areas that have lowest health and educational attainment (the south), match up with the above shown US HDI maps.

    So, even though the USA is nowhere near a Third World country, nor are any parts of it, the point of all of this is that we have extreme disparities in income distribution, which is affecting our health and education in key regions. Comments about the wording used to describe Detroit are irrelevant, the whole point is that we have lots to improve upon within the country.

    Posted February 25, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  31. Gaby wrote:

    Well the U.S needs to be getting money from the WB now if this is the case. I know there are some poverty places around the U.S. but I guess people think we can hold our own.People here are still suffering as well. And detroit might not exactly look like that but I’m sure if you go around to other places in the U.S, you will find some poverty areas.

    Posted February 25, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  32. Seth Brooks wrote:

    This is my main issue with global development, we have still have so much work needing to be done here in our own country. The need for global development is huge but so is our need for employment and to lower the poverty level and fix the educational system. How can we send people to go fix something elsewhere, when big chunks of our systems aren’t working? There are people who genuinely care about global development and want to make a difference, but there are also those who just want to look good and make a name. I say we need to focus our efforts on our people, our country, and our home before we try to prod into the belly of another nation.

    Posted February 25, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  33. Anna Carella wrote:

    It’s only poverty porn if you’re profiting from it somehow (donations, readers) or reinforcing stereotypes about people from far away places. If you’re from Michigan, they are simply lamentable photos of your home state.,29307,1864272_1810098,00.html

    (I’m from Lansing.)

    Also, I’m sure the Ghanians who protested the photo representations of their country at the World Bank annual meeting would be happy to see we’re willing to showcase a little U.S. poverty for once instead of shiny perfect buildings as per the norm.)

    Posted February 27, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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