The under-reported decline of global poverty

Dr Angus Hervey

Since yesterday, 250,000 people have been lifted out of bone-crushing, one-meal-a-day, soul-destroying, unrelenting, extreme poverty, writes Dr Angus Hervey. It’s time to tell that story of progress

This article was originally published by Future Crunch, a media platform that tell stories about amazing scientific breakthroughs and good news from around the world that you don’t usually find in the mainstream press. They’re a bit like an Australian version of Positive News, just more foul-mouthed and with an extra helping of science.

“If you’re over the age of 18, you probably grew up with the story of how the world is divided into the rich and the poor. But your opinions about global inequality really depend on where you’re standing.

That story was forged during a time of real global inequality. In 1970, around 60 per cent of the world’s 3.7 billion people lived in extreme poverty. If you plotted the world’s income on a distribution curve, it looked like camel humps. There was a small, high income group of countries up at the front, and then a bigger low income group at the back.

For decades, the language that we created to describe this world (first vs. third, developed v developing) dominated popular discourse, which is why it’s so deeply ingrained for so many of us. Which is a pity, because that world doesn’t exist any more. If you’re willing to re-examine some of your old-fashioned ideas, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that the story has changed.

Since yesterday, 250,000 people have been lifted out of bone-crushing, one-meal-a-day, soul-destroying, no-dentist, no-doctor, no-electricity, single accident-means-life-and-death, unrelenting, extreme poverty

Today, only 0.7 billion of the world’s 7.5 billion people live below the extreme poverty line. That’s less than 10 per cent of the world’s population. Not only is this the lowest proportion of people in extreme poverty ever, it’s also the lowest total number in more than 200 years. It’s the great economic success story of all time.

To paraphrase the indispensable Max Roser, the front-page headline every day should read:
‘Since yesterday, 250,000 people have been lifted out of bone-crushing, one-meal-a-day, soul-destroying, no-dentist, no-doctor, no-electricity, single accident-means-life-and-death, unrelenting, extreme poverty.’

It’s worth diving into this in a bit more detail. For most of recorded history, only a tiny elite enjoyed higher standards of living. By far the majority of people were dirt poor. That’s how things stayed. Inequality wasn’t a social issue, it was just the way the world worked. In the last 200 years this has changed dramatically.

Source: Future Crunch (2017)

Poverty has been falling continuously despite the world’s population increasing seven-fold during that time. And since the fall of the Berlin Wall, that process has accelerated, with an average of 47 million people lifted over the extreme poverty line every year for the last 25 years.

A lot of this is thanks to China. Between 1978 and 2010, the country’s economy grew at an average pace of 10 per cent per year, lifting an astonishing 800 million people out of extreme poverty. And since 2010, inequality in China has been falling too, thanks to minimum-wage regulations and increases in the social welfare state.

It’s not just China though. Poverty reduction has happened in every region of the world. In 1981 almost one third of the non-Chinese world population was living in extreme poverty. By 2013, this share had fallen to 12 per cent.

Source: World Bank (2017)

The amount of money that would be theoretically needed to lift everyone in the world out of extreme poverty is now about half of what it was a decade ago. This shows that not only are we reducing the incidence of poverty, we’re making inroads into its intensity. And it’s happening at every income level. The income cutoff of the world’s poorest 10 per cent has doubled in the last decade, and so has the global median income: from $1,100 a year to $2,010 a year (£658 to £1,203).

That means that the world today looks very different to the one that many of us still have in our heads. The double camel hump from the 1970s has disappeared, to be replaced by something that now looks a lot more like a normal distribution curve. Everyone who makes it past the vertical poverty line you see below can now afford a bicycle, basic healthcare and a mobile phone.

The lives of the bottom billion are steadily improving and the world’s big aid agencies are now saying that they think we might see the end of extreme poverty within our lifetimes.

Source: Gapminder (2017)

So the next time you read an article lamenting that inequality is the greatest economic issue of our time, take a moment and ask yourself who’s writing it. Your opinion really depends on who you care about, and where you stand.

If you’re a car worker in Guangzhou you probably feel a lot better about the state of the world than if you’re a car worker in Adelaide. If you’re a journalist in New York whose previously stable, middle class income is now a lot less certain, you’re a lot more likely to write articles about inequality. But if you’re a tech journalist in Kenya reporting on Nairobi’s amazing boom, the subject is less likely to appear.

For the average human being on the planet today, the world has never been a better place. That story doesn’t get told nearly enough

It’s true that globalisation has been unkind to many people, especially in places like the United Kingdom and the United States. These countries have been eating their poor for decades, and the political consequences have become very apparent in the last few years. But we are talking about a very small proportion of the world’s total population. How many column inches have been dedicated to the livelihoods of a few thousand coal miners in the US, compared to the few hundred million people in Latin America, almost all of whom live in countries where inequality has dropped in the last decade?

At the risk of sounding callous: if the fate of your fellow global citizens concerns you more than the fate of the working class in a few OECD countries, you should be feeling pretty happy about what humanity has achieved in the last 25 years.

We should continue to highlight the plight of those who are still living in extreme poverty. And we should continue to insist that our political leaders enact policies that reduce inequality within our own countries. But we also need to acknowledge our global victories, and celebrate success.

For the average human being on the planet today, the world has never been a better place. That story doesn’t get told nearly enough.”

Dr Angus Hervey


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  • RuthiB

    “So the next time you read an article lamenting that inequality is the greatest economic issue of our time, take a moment and ask yourself who’s writing it”

    Extreme poverty and inequality is not the same thing. Getting rid of the former – while of course very important and I agree, should be celebrated more – doesn’t mean that the world is less unequal. In fact inequality measures have overall increased in recent years, and focusing only on extreme poverty as a measure of progress let’s the problem of inequality off the hook (so to speak).

    To go all metaphorical – these are two separate fronts in the same war. It’s good and encouraging that we’re winning on one of them, but we shouldn’t assume that because of that the whole war is won.

  • Zombi Bikini

    Good, and obvious point, if you’ve read what the super rich are holding these days. I’d like to see some sort of camel hump graph showing the mass of wealth relative to the numbers of people holding it.

  • Eric Nicolas Schneider

    Shocked about this illiteracy: “By far the majority of people were dirt poor. That’s how things stayed. Inequality wasn’t a social issue, it was just the way the world worked.” That is a stupid view of 20th Cty urban western people. If one went or goes to untouched indigenous populations and rural villages, as were the Nuba in Sudan in the 80s before the genocide… life was EASE, NO WORRIES ABOUT LOSING HOUSING, FOOD, BEING IN HE STREET ALONE WITH SOCIAL STIGMA. They “work” hunting and gathering or doing the fields between 0.25 and 6h/day. No sense of loss, but ample time for joy, learning, spiritual development, in short GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS defined by economic / ecological / cultural / spiritual POVERTY OR WEALTH. Look at your “rich lauded populations” – and their extreme lack, their ecological, cultural and spiritual poverty … making them do holidays in far away national parks, far away temples and retreats, eating far away food, 50% on pills for depression, blood thinners, cancer, all their fears of going outside for being rapied, killed, and numbing themselves playing pc games, fanging dead on facebook and watching porn because they re too ugly to have a real partner. THE FEW VERY POOR U MENTION live in shitty places where “empire” and crappy patriarchal culture has impoverished spirit and land. The vast majority of Africa for instance is very fertile and knows no hunger. It’s only a few countries. In the USA, 20% of people live in HUNGER!!! (official data) dependent on scraps, food banks… I dont think YOU COUNT THEM! Your nunbers are croooked and I have to say the POSITIVE NEWS UK that have become since SHAUNA DIED have become more trendy looking but the quality plummeted to the abyss, copy pasting incompetent broken pseudo good news from uneducated hipsters. Little high level scholarly truly positive change there and NOT THE WORLDVIEW required for a better world.

  • HappyValley49

    Good news…but what about the environmental cost of this economic growth, which seems to be destroying the planet for all of us?

  • RuthiB

    Commenting again, as this popped up again on my Twitter feed, and I am a bit disturbed about the framing of this article. As I say in my first comment, it is good to acknowledge and celebrate the decline in extreme poverty. What I find problematic here is saying that those who are focusing on the bad sides of globalisation are thinking only of themselves, or of their corner of the world, and that if only they thought more about the people in developing countries they would see all the good that has occurred (ie – they are being rather selfish). Well, I’m sorry, but globalisation is also a driver of the rise in inequality, and that increasing inequality is what allows the global “elite” to get away with not paying their share.

    There is at least $18.5 trillion hidden by wealthy individuals in tax havens. That is a loss of $156 billion in tax revenue, a sum that could end extreme income poverty twice over. In other words – while things are better than what they used to be, they are still much worse than they could have been. So next time someone laments the fact that people are talking about inequality as the greatest economic issue of our time, take a moment and ask yourself who’s writing it…

  • J Bullen

    I’m very happy to hear this news, its fantastic that so many people now have a good meal each day across our world. But I don’t understand why this has to be celebrated somehow in competition to the suffering of working people now in the UK? In my family, as working people we experienced great advances (from my grandparents leaving school at 12years old to work in mines and mills, and my grandfathers dying in their 50s, to me achieving a doctorate at Oxford University and owning a home) but things are going backwards now and there is serious suffering – increased homelessness and sleeping on the streets, people living in tents or under motorway bridges, people dying in the streets – other people having to choose between putting the heating on and eating – people not being able to replace cookers when they break down, – children going to school once again with holes in their shoes – and it matters enormously that this is happening within a context where their bosses/employers and investors are seeing their wealth increase exponentially – it means their suffering is totally unnecessary and preventable if we had a fairer distribution of the wealth, wealth which is created ultimately by their labour. The banking crisis has been ruthlessly and cynically exploited by the elite and this must be challenged – the suffering of the poor in this country now must not be minimised and especially not whilst the rich get richer and richer – inequality of the level we now have in the UK is iniquitous. Please do not minimise/ridicule poverty in the UK – it is a miserable existence and lives are being laid to waste

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