125,000 people escape poverty every day.

THE NUMBERS: Share of world population in absolute poverty* –

1980: 43.5%
1990 36.1%
2000 27.9%
2005 21.5%
2008 19.2
2010 17.6%

* World Bank estimates for population in absolute poverty ($1.25 per person per day, in constant 2005 dollars) matched against Census Bureau figures for global population.


Is the new millennium’s most important event the China boom? The growth of the Internet? Climate change? Or is it the improving lives of the world’s poor? Consider as a starting point the Revelations verse on the third of the four horsemen, known as Want:

I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.

The “penny” in the original Greek is a “denarius,” and implies an ordinary day’s wages. Translated into modern terms, life at just enough money to buy a day’s food is close to the World Bank’s definition of absolute poverty: life on $1.25 a day or less, in constant 2005 dollars. At current food and transport prices, a measure of staple foods would not quite take up the entire sum, but is close: a family of five in (say) Cite de Soleil on $5 would be able to pay for bus-fare back and forth to a day-labor site, buy two bowls of rice for each family member, and provide a quarter or so for lodging.

A generation ago in 1993, 1.9 billion people – nearly half the world’s men, women, and children – lived on this very thin line between subsistence and hunger. Since then poverty totals have been falling fast – and in fact falling more rapidly as time passes.

By 2000 the number of people in absolute poverty had fallen to 1.7 billion, and the share of world population to 28 percent. This drop, however, principally reflected rapid poverty reduction in China: Between 1993 and 2005, poverty totals fell by 420 million in China, and 100 million in the rest of the world.  Since 2005, the global total has dropped to 1.21 billion, and poverty declines have been more broadly spread. Between 2005 and 2010, China’s poverty total fell by 55 million, and the rest of the world by 120 million. Some regional results:

South Asia: Poverty down from 45 percent and 640 million people in 2000, to 36 percent and 570 million in 2008, and 30 percent and 506 million in 2010.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Poverty rate down from 58 percent in 1999 to 52 percent in 2008 and 47 percent in 2010, with the Senegalese figures representing one of the fastest drops; population in poverty has risen slightly with overall population growth, from 377 million to 386 million.

Latin America & Middle East: Both now have very low poverty rates, at 6.5 percent for Latin America and the Caribbean, and 2.5 percent for the Middle East, down from 11.9 percent and 5.0 percent respectively in 1999.

The most recent estimates, done last month by the World Bank, find the totals down to 1.2 billion people and 17.5 percent of population. To choose a single large-country case, Indonesia’s absolute-poverty rate fell from 23 percent to 18 percent between 2008 and 2010. With Indonesia’s population at 240 million, a 5-percent shift means 14 million people escaping poverty. Or to look worldwide, the 1.6-percent drop in rates over these two years meant about 125,000 people escaping deep poverty each day.

The horseman termed Want, apparently, is in retreat: his borders contracting, and his kingdom shrinking fast. Among the big millennial events, this one is likely the least-reported and hardest to see in daily life. But surely it ranks near the top.


Data –

Poverty stats from the Bank: http://iresearch.worldbank.org/PovcalNet/index.htm
A quick table of the total number of people (by the Bank’s estimates) living in absolute poverty over the past 30 years:

1980: 1.94 billion
1990 1.91 billion
2000 1.70 billion
2005 1.39 billion
2008 1.30 billion
2010 1.21 billion

And for the first time free on-line, the Bank’s uniquely comprehensive and useful World Development Indicators tables for 2013: http://wdi.worldbank.org/tables

Policy –

An appeal from Dr. Kim, the WB President, for a renewed effort to abolish absolute poverty by 2030: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2013/04/02/world-bank-group-president-jim-yong-kims-speech-at-georgetown-university

U.S. AID calls for reshaping food aid: http://www.usaid.gov/foodaidreform


Why does poverty fade? A list of hypotheses, none mutually exclusive, and doubtless incomplete –

Urbanization? A generation ago, 43 percent of the world’s people lived in cities, and 57 percent in rural areas. Now the split is 52 percent urban, 48 percent rural. City life, though often more crowded and polluted, also means more jobs at better pay, easier access to clean water and health care, and so on. Poverty is concentrated in rural areas, which are home to 76 percent of the world’s very poor people.

Science & technology? New medicines, rapid spread of mobile phones (and hence access to financial services, health care, and education) mean better health, more ability to build wealth and skills.

The China boom? China’s volcanic growth over the past decade has – apart from rapidly reducing poverty in China itself – raised agricultural and natural-resource prices, accelerating growth in Africa and South America.

Globalization? A more open world economy and the steady elaboration of supply chains mean more reliable supplies of essential goods – food, energy, clothes – at lower cost, and more opportunities to capitalize on comparative advantages; cross-border migration means $400 billion in flows of remittances annually to low-income countries.

Government? Improving policies and slowly spreading transparency, might mean wider access to education and primary health care, better transport linking farms to markets and countries to the global economy, and less national wealth siphoned away by corruption.

Peace? No great-power war has erupted since the 1960s, and guerrilla and civil wars have become rare. Southeast Asia and Latin American have been especially successful in quelling conflicts, and have brought poverty to very low levels.

And last –

The four horsemen, from Revelations (see 6:5 for Want): =”http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/book.php?book=Revelation&chapter=6&verse