Myth 6: Europe has a lower standard of living than the United States.

ShareFACT: In the United States nearly 14% of Americans live in poverty – about 40 million people — compared to 6% in France, 8% in Britain, and 5% or less in Germany, Sweden and Belgium. Twenty percent of American children live below the poverty line, as do nearly 23% of the elderly, the highest figure by far in the west with the exceptions of Russia and Mexico. The U.S. is ranked 29th in infant mortality, tied with Poland and Slovakia (in 1960 the U.S. was ranked twelfth) and 37th in health care (France is ranked first). The wealthiest 10 percent of Americans now owns 70 percent of the wealth but in Germany the top 10 percent owns 44 percent.

The claim that Americans have a higher standard of living is based on the U.S. having a higher ‘average income’ than most European countries. But average income doesn’t convey much about income distribution; if Bill Gates walked into a bar the ‘average income’ of everyone in the bar would increase by about a billion dollars!

Besides, Europeans invest their wealth into other important things besides income that benefit everyone equally, such as quality health care, child care, more vacations, more generous retirement pensions, paid parental leave after childbirth, free or nearly free college education, affordable housing, supportive senior care, better parks and more. In today’s economically insecure age, quality of life is not only about income levels but also about adequate support institutions for families and individuals. If the average American has more income than a European, how come Europeans have a much higher savings rate than Americans?

– Steven Hill, guest blogger

Ed. comments:

You can see all the posts in this series here.

Steven Hill is the author of “Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age” ( He’s visiting Seattle and Bellingham this week:

  • Monday March 15 at 11 a.m., interview on the Dave Ross Show, KIRO 97.3 FM
  • Monday March 15 at 7 p.m., presenting at the University of Washington Communications Building
  • Tuesday March 16 at 7:30 pm: presenting at Town Hall Seattle (tickets here)
  • Wednesday March 17, 7:00 p.m.: presenting at Village Books, Bellingham
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Posted in A Fair Deal at Work, Health Care, Retirement Security


  1. Jane Baker says:

    The United States has something that European nations do not, however. The U.S. has a rising immigrant population whereas many European countries actually have decreasing populations. I think it’s important to factor in (or out) this demographic when comparing the U.S. and Europe since most people who immigrate are looking for a better life. Take non-first generation Americans and compare to (established) Europeans and then tell us whether the differences are as stark.

    • EOI says:

      This writer is wrong on several counts. First, many European countries actually have a HIGHER rate of foreign-born residents than the US has — Switzerland over 20% for example, while the US has about 12% — though many of Europe’s foreign-born are from other European countries, not from poor/Third World countries. The latter category of immigrant has been increasing as a percentage of the overall population in recent years, but not as dramatically as some gloom and doomers say. And the former category is important as well, but this writer is either unaware of it or wants to ignore them and focus only on “the minorities,” so to speak. So I question her methodology.

      Second, certain European countries, Germany, Italy and Spain in particular, have alarmingly low birth rates, but France, Ireland, the Scandinavian countries and Britain are holding their own, at or just below replacement levels. Central and East European countries also have low birth rates, but those closely track with the end of communism when economic uncertainty and the collapse of child support structures caused women to postpone births; there is evidence of birth rates rebounding there. And in Germany and Spain, they are pursuing certain policies to make it easier for women to both have a career and be mothers (i.e. more child care centers), which evidence from Britain, France and elsewhere have shown to increase birth rates.

      So the notion that Europe is “dying out” is just so much hype, and premature at best. Also, this writer seems to portray immigrants to the US as being wholly accepted here, but that is obviously an overly rosy assessment of the situation. There are still powerful leaders who wish to crack down on immigration, and it will remain a hot spot of US politics for years to come. As to her comment of taking “non-first generation Americans and compare to (established) Europeans and then tell us whether the differences are as stark,” I don’t see that as relevant. What is her point? That first generation Americans and Europeans (the latter of which she has underestimated) shouldn’t be counted in these numbers? In general, this writer appears to reflect an all-too-common bias that wants to keep certain populations invisible, as if they are not part of the national fabric. To me that just looks like cherrypicking data to allow one to maintain one’s already previously conceived conclusion.

      All the best,

      • Gri Jalco says:

        Steve I too reside in Evropa and have heard that claim about Evropa aging population being far greater then the US and how this will be a problem for us in the future. In Czech we are “encouraged” to have offspring as an investment in the future of the country – they need a work force. So we get incentives from the State to have kids.

        So are you saying that Evropa population is not increasingly aging quicker then the USA – baby boomers?

    • I did and it is very stark. The American Dream no longer exists for the middle class only poverty and misery.

  2. Dimitri says:

    America never sold itself on a high standard of living. All it promises is the ability to freely dream. …[remainder clipped by moderator]…

    • It is fine to state your opinion, but merely saying something doesn’t make it so. On this site, claims need to be backed up with facts if you want to be part of the dialogue. (See our comment policy here.) Please re-submit your comment with some verifiable and/or factual basis for your assertions. Thanks.

    • Dimitri says:

      Here are some facts about the social “equality” in Europe. They are based on facts and my experiences after having been born and raised in Europe. I cannot make assertions about the whole continent, just the countries I lived in (Greece and France).

      Healthcare: There are definitely three levels of healthcare. The Cadillac level: the very wealthy go to private clinics or get treated abroad. The “socialized” rich level: wealthy individuals get treated in public clinics but provide bribes to physicians and staff to obtain better and quicker services. This also ensures treatment by the physician of choice. I know from experience that in 2002, $10,000 in cash was the going rate to “retain” your physician of choice for cardiac bypass surgery. The masses level: the remaining population is treated in overcrowded hospitals and experience long delays.

      Social safety net: I personally know wealthy individuals who obtained housing built for the less affluent. This was achieved by using personal connections to jump the waiting cue and get to the front of the line (The fact is that they never even qualified for the assistance). These individuals purchased the condo at a highly discounted price (the difference having been subsidized by the State). The same individuals have sufficient resources to afford a summer home and yearly skiing vacations in the Swiss Alps. Interestingly enough, all the other residents of the complex are physicians, dentists and other such highly compensated professionals. As one owner told me: ”If I didn’t jump the cue, someone else would! So why not me?”.

      My point is that all is not what is seems on the Continent. In the US, the rules are clear: You pay to play. In Europe much of the same rules apply, but are hidden.

      • Dimitri, the original topic of this post is comparing standards of living, not levels of corruption, between Europe and the U.S. You have conflated your assertions of government corruption (based on your personal experience) with unsupported claims of systemic problems like long lines for public health care services and lack of low-income housing for people who need it.

        Certainly corruption is present to a greater or lesser extent, in the public or private sector, no matter where you go. Rooting it out is an important job for governments at all levels to undertake. But the existence of corruption is not an indictment of public health or housing policies that ensure quality, affordable services are widely available to people. Rather, it means the particular government(s) implementing those policies are doing a poor job of it.

        An aside: I looked up the IP address of the computer used to post your comment since you failed to provide a real email address for your post. It belongs to the Navy Network Information Center (NNIC) located in Norfolk, Virginia. How is it that someone “born and raised in Europe” ends up using a U.S. military computer to post on this blog?

      • Gri Jalco says:

        I too reside in Evropa and that is not my experience. I pay a flat rate each month and ALL are required to by law even folks who seek permanent residence MUST provide proof of health insurance. What EU country would that be not Germany for I lived/work there for many years.

      • Veijo Arosara says:

        You know that all European coutries aren’t like Greece. No doubt greece hasn’t very high living standerd, but the comparition was between USA and Western/Northern Rurope. In that comparition Europe wins. As for the health care, I went thru a major surgery of pleura a few years ago. After the problem was diagnosed it took less than a week untill I had the operation. I stayed at the hospital for five days after the operation, and it cost me about 100€, no bribe needed,

    • Gri Jalco says:

      Freely dream? What does that mean? The American Dream yes I have heard and one would have to be asleep to believe that. for most Americans the only dream they will EVER have is a BAD one!

  3. None Of Your Damn Business says:

    Wow! Is this blog for real? I was doing some research on living standards in Europe and happened to come across your blog. After reading how downright rude you were to the person who gave an opinion based on facts of where he has lived, I will totally dismiss your facts as biased and never visit this blog again.

    Not only were you rude, but you are a creepy stalker. You looked up his IP address? Really?!

    You just made yourself look like a controlling ass who obviously doesn’t value the feedback of others.

    Get out of kindergarten. People don’t need a hall monitor when posting on the net.

    P.S. Your diatribe is filled with myths and is grossly misleading, but since you refuse to consider facts from other sources, I won’t bother to enlighten you.

    It’s no surprise to see that the comment section is devoid of interaction. You either won’t let people’s comments through, or you try to bully people by looking up their IP’s. Enjoy posting to yourself because there is certainly no free speech when it comes to your blog.

    • NODB, in my experience good blogs have moderators. You seem to feel I crossed a line here, so let’s talk about it.

      Dimitri’s comment was based partly on his personal experience, and that is permissible under the terms of this blog’s comment policy. You’ll note that I did not dispute those facts in my response. However, using use one’s personal experience to make larger claims about other larger or systemic problems without some independent factual basis to back it up, as Dimitri does, is not encouraged on this blog (also noted in our comment policy). I pointed that out in my response to him.

      As the moderator, I encourage people to use a name (which is public) and a verifiable email address (which is not public) so that I can correspond with people who comment if needed. Dimitri posted an obviously false email address. In an attempt to verify his comment was not simply spam, I looked up the IP address associated with his comment. Doing so revealed that Dimitri may not have actually been who he said he was. That was his choice to make.

      If you have verifiable facts to share about the standard of living in Europe and the United States, you are most welcome to post them here for further discussion.

      P.S. I’ve merged your two original comments into one (verbatim) in order to make things easier to read.

  4. rickwash4 says:

    Also, in America, thanks to T. Kennedy’s immigration bill years ago the US must allow 2/3 of immigrants to be from 3rd World Nations. I understand the need to try a help those people, but talk about dumbing down America and the health and social costs to this nation to help these people recover is staggering to the tax system. We should allow many more immigrates with the brains, talents, education, etc here first to help build and maintain a healthy population and economy. If we can do that it makes us stronger and richer to help others in various countries.

    • EOI says:

      EOI doesn’t cover immigration issues, but it’s pertinent to this post, so I’m going to approve your comment for now. Provided you can back up your assertions with independently verifiable facts from credible sources, it will stay up. Otherwise, it will be deleted per our comment policy.

    • Penny says:

      Wow. Not everyone from a Third or Fourth world country is stupid, illiterate, uneducated and “a drain on the welfare system.” That sounds racist to me. You see brown skin and assume it is “stupid” and going to be a drain on the welfare system? ALL countries have their educated and skilled counterparts just like the “white” countries of the US and Western Europe!

  5. sirotis says:

    The author is missing some obvious points. There are ways to adjust for inequality and get a better comparison. The first thing you should look at to compare countries is PPP adjusted MEDIAN (not average) income, which is not even mentioned. From there you can compare that number to the average # of hours worked per year and factor in how hard people have to work to reach a particular level of income.

  6. Alex says:

    On the End the US looses no matter what, I lived in several countries in Europe, in Germany for more than 10 years, also lived in the US since more than 6 years. Overall in Europe you have a better life.
    In the US most things are always directed towards the money, the rich the industries and govt, vacation days, sick days, …. suck badly. There’s a long list why the US isn’t nearly as good as it was once. The US killed its freedom thanks to the power of the industry and the elite.

  7. Absolute horsepucky! You are comparing apples to oranges. Entirely different measurements in different countries. Most of the people counted among those in “poverty” in the United States live like the Middle Class in Britain, France, etc.

    It also depends on whose measure of poverty you are using. The United States government measures poverty by dividing all income levels into “quintiles” or fifths, and anyone living in the lowest fifth is considered to be in poverty–which means the higher the top incomes rise, the more people are living in SUPPOSED poverty.

    Even the World Bank admits that their measures of poverty are comparing apples to oranges and are a combination of entirely subjective measures.

    Many Americans in “poverty” own their own free-standing homes, car or multiple cars, and many other standard of living items that European middle class dont even have.

    Americans HAD (emphasis on the past tense) access to truly affordable healthcare plans for those above the poverty level, and Medicaid for those who fell below the poverty level.

    But that was before Obamacare (the “Affordable” Care Act) made healthcare costs, premiums, copays, and deductibles skyrocket. And before “expanded medicaid” made up to 70% of doctors in metropolitain areas start refusing to see medicaid patients. The use of Emergency Rooms for non emergent care has gone UP not down as a result of Obamacare, because now people who have “coverage” cant find doctors who will see them, except at the ER.

    And your claims about infant mortality are absolute balderdash as well. Once again, comparing apples to oranges as the United States tries to save infants that European countries dont even count in their statistics. Some European countries don’t count any infants born below a certain weight even though they are born alive, other European countries dont count any infants born beneath a certain height. even though they are born alive. The United States has a higher infant mortality rate precisely BECAUSE we count FAR more infants born alive and try to save them than Europeans do–with the exception of some US abortion clinics, where, it has been shown, they have sometimes allowed “botched abortions” otherwise known as infants that were born alive to die without any attempt to save them,

    Yes, Americans have a FAR higher standard of living than Europeans. Many of our “poor”, as I said, have a standard of living that would count as middle class in Europe.

  8. Americans cannot believe the stark reality that they are now living in poverty and misery at the expense of the rich.

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  1. […] how do low wage earners in countries like Germany, France, and the Netherlands end up with a better standard of living than their counterparts in the United States? The answer is that those countries have robust wage […]

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