|...The important thing isn’t the line so much as the distribution: Are the world’s poorest people making more money overall? And the answer to the latter is yes, they are, as Hickel himself concedes. |
This chart from a 2013 paper by Shaohua Chen, the lead development statistician at the World Bank, and Martin Ravallion requires some unpacking but illustrates the point well:
(Thanks to Ryan Briggs for the pointer.)
The x-axis represents different hypothetical poverty thresholds: $1.90 per day, $7.40 per day, all the way up to $13 per day, or roughly the US line for a family of four. Then the y-axis tells what percentage of humanity lived below that poverty line in a given year. The blue line shows the distribution for 1981, the black line for 2008; let’s just compare those two to keep things simple.
Obviously, a poverty line of $0 has no one living under it. And a poverty line of $1 billion a day would have everyone living under it. But what this chart shows is that for every poverty line between $0 and $13 per day, and potentially above that even, poverty was lower in 2008 than it was in 1981. That wasn’t true if you compared 1999 to 1981; all the progress between those years was at the very low end, so $6- or $7-a-day poverty wasn’t reduced. But we’ve reduced poverty from 1981 to 2008 using basically any threshold you could possibly want to use.
This doesn’t answer the question of what line science communicators should use. I am not as outraged as Hickel is by use of the $1.90-a-day line, as I think it shows part of a broader story that holds true for whatever poverty line you choose. But I’d personally be happy to change to $7.40 a day, which would show something very similar happening.
On absolute numbers, I fear Hickel has a weaker case. Hickel likes to note that while the share of people living under $7.40 a day has declined from 1981 to the present, the number of people living below it has increased.
“If the goal is to end poverty, what matters is absolute numbers,” he writes. “Certainly that’s what matters from the perspective of poor people themselves.”
This is the same reason that figures like Hickel’s sworn enemy Bill Gates worry about population growth in poor countries. But I think Gates is wrong about that, and that Hickel is as well. Another way of saying “the poverty rate fell while the absolute number of poor people increased” is that a lot of middle-income countries, with lots of people living on between $1.90 a day and $7.40 day, saw their populations grow. There are more Indians now, more Indonesians, more Nigerians, more Kenyans.
That’s not a bad thing. Using absolute numbers risks confusing reducing poverty with preventing poor people from existing. The latter is a much weirder and frankly more disturbing goal. The history of Western countries trying to intervene in population growth in the developing world is extraordinarily ugly, full of forced sterilizations and other human rights abuses. Part of why populations have increased, moreover, is due to profound improvement in health and food supply like the Green Revolution, smallpox eradication, malaria bednets, etc. Is the success of those policies really evidence that poverty increased?
More conceptually, it doesn’t really make sense to interpret the choice of a poor woman in India to have another kid as “increasing poverty.” What most people in the development field want to ensure is that the people who do exist, however many of them there may be, are as well off as possible. Using percentages is a better approach for that, though even percentages can be affected by population growth effects if fertility in poor countries dramatically outpaces fertility in rich countries.
When I reached out to Hickel about this issue, he pushed back, arguing that in a rich world, we should assume that any individual born into poverty is a policy failure. “In rich nations like the UK or US we would never say that a growing poverty rate has to do with reproduction,” he wrote in an email. “No, we would point out that it has to do with the minimum wage being too low, or weak labour rights, or subprime mortgages, or inflated housing prices, or whatever. We identify systemic causes, because we know that poverty amidst plenty isn’t natural, it is created. So why when it comes to the global South do we imagine otherwise?”
This feels to me a bit like an evasion of the question. We use poverty rates, not absolute numbers, in discussions of US poverty as well. But in some ways, Hickel’s response reflects the crux of the dispute between him and Roser. Roser — like most economic historians — does not view poverty as created but as the original state of humankind from its inception until the Industrial Revolution. It is a policy failure insofar as we finally have the tools to end it now and have not done so yet, but what we’re attempting to do is escape humanity’s natural, brutal conditions. Hickel sees things differently...