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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.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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