Decline watch: How poor is America?

When Janis Joplin sang, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," the current economic doldrums probably aren't what she had in mind. Nevertheless, a dispiriting U.S. Census Bureau report revealed that more Americans than ever are impoverished. 2.6 million Americans dropped below the poverty line in 2010, expanding the ranks of America's poor to 46.2 million -- the highest number in the over half-century that this has been tracked.

Comparing international poverty statistics can be a dicey business because the cost of living varies across continents and countries set their own national poverty lines. However, it is helpful in determining how other countries perceive their poverty problem and provides some context for the relative impoverishment of the United States.

In Europe, the rising U.S. poverty rate -- which currently stands at 15.1 percent -- would not raise eyebrows among the continent's major economies. 15.5 percent of Germans were living below the poverty line in 2010, and the country is divided into regions of haves and have- nots. France does a little better, but not much: 13.5 percent of French citizens in 2009 lived off less than 60 percent of the median household income, which the European Union uses as its poverty threshold.

Things get trickier when trying to compare U.S. poverty rates to those in China. By the Chinese government's own standards, only 2.8 percent of rural Chinese were living below the poverty line in 2004. That's hard to believe, as the World Bank reported that the per capita income of all Chinese that year, after correcting for regional price disparities, was only $3,590.

But while the precise figures may be fuzzy, the trends in China's war against poverty are clear. Using the World Bank's own standards, the number of Chinese below the poverty line fell from 65 percent to 10 percent between 1981 and 2004 -- an advance that removed more than half a billion Chinese from the ranks of the country's impoverished. The United States may still be far richer than China -- but the trends are heading in the wrong direction.



How do you post bail to the Iranian government?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced to NBC on Tuesday that U.S. citizens Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, sentenced by an Iranian court in August to eight-year prison sentences for spying and entering the country illegally (the prisoners maintain that they were hiking and crossed into Iran accidentally), would be allowed to return home in the next few days. While the U.S. government has not confirmed their return, it now seems likely that the two will not be serving the entirety of their sentence in notorious Evin prison.

The release is not without a caveat, however: A $500,000 bail must be paid for each prisoner. Masoud Shafiee, the pair's attorney in Tehran, said that the hikers' families are currently trying to find the money for the bail. But the business of posting bail to a hostile foreign government under U.S. sanctions is not so simple. 

The precedent for this case is Sarah Shourd, who was arrested with Bauer and Fattal in July 2009. Shourd was released in September 2010, in part due to health concerns, and was also required to make a $500,000 bail payment.

There was some speculation at that time that the U.S. government would pay the bail. However, then- U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley made it very clear that, "the United States government does not fund prisoner bail." This put the onus back on the families of the detainees, who said that they could not afford the steep payoff. On the other hand, Crowley also made it clear that a bail payment would not necessarily violate U.S. sanctions against Iran.

"There are transactions all the time between Iran and the rest of the world," Crowley pointed out, according to Al Jazeera. "Some of them violate sanctions, others don't."

Eventually, the money was deposited into an Iranian bank in Oman (which helped to arrange the details of the payment, according to U.S. officials). At the time, it was unclear who paid the bail, although there was some speculation that the benefactor was the Sultan of Oman. Oman, while rarely in the headlines, maintains strong ties to both Iran and the U.S., giving it a unique ability to facilitate behind-the-scenes interactins between the two antagonistic powers. The AP quoted a U.S. official saying that neither the families nor the U.S. government fronted the money, but declined to say who did.

With the payment (called bail by Iran, but dubbed everything from ransom to blackmail elsewhere) now doubled as both Bauer and Fattal await their release, it remains to be seen if a mysterious third party will intervene to free them. It also remains to be seen if the move will prove a boon to the embattled Ahmadinejad, who has been mired in domestic infighting against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for months. Ahmadinejad reportedly intervened to help free Shourd, only to be rebuked by the Iranian judiciary. Whatever the outcome, Iran is unlikely to end its habit of seizing foreigners anytime soon.