How poverty has tracked global population

By Felix Salmon
October 31, 2011
Laurence Chandy and Homi Kharas at Brookings, two Englishmen who provided him with unpublished data and were extremely generous with their time. " data-share-img="" data-share="twitter,facebook,linkedin,reddit,google" data-share-count="true">

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184x558_popchart_left_align.gif The world officially hit 7 billion people today, and so to celebrate I decided to take a look at what’s happened to poverty in the world as its population has increased — many, many thanks to Nick Rizzo and to Laurence Chandy and Homi Kharas at Brookings, two Englishmen who provided him with unpublished data and were extremely generous with their time.

The big picture can be seen in the chart at left: the number of poor people hasn’t been growing nearly as fast as the number of people. And indeed over the past 24 years, as the world’s population increased by 40% from 5 billion to 7 billion, the total number of people living in poverty has actually gone down. (One small note I should make about these charts: the dollar-a-day figures from 1987 onwards actually measure the population living on less than $1.25 a day, so a jump in the absolute-poverty numbers between 1974 and 1987 is partially a function of the fact that we’re raising the bar from $1 to $1.25.)

In fact, there’s pretty much the same number of people living in absolute poverty today — about 890 million, or 12.7% of the global population — as there were all the way back in 1804, when the world’s population hit 1 billion and 84% of them were living in absolute poverty.

Indeed, back in 1804, only 5% of the world was living on more than $2 a day. (All these numbers, of course, are real, and adjusted for purchasing power.) Today, that number is 4.7 billion, or 67% of the world’s population. The number of people in the world living out of poverty has been growing faster than the world’s population as a whole for pretty much all of recorded history.

And the “global middle” — people living on somewhere between $10 and $100 per day — is growing particularly fast. It was 1.14 billion in 1987; it’s 1.96 billion today. That’s an increase of 72%, even as the population of the world as a whole has gone up by just 40%.

A huge amount of what we’re seeing here is the effect of China, of course. Here’s what’s happened in East Asia over the past 24 years:


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Absolute poverty in East Asia has gone down to 142 million today from 822 million in 1987, even as the population as a whole has risen from 1.5 billion to 1.9 billion. 24 years ago, more than half of East Asia lived in absolute poverty; today, it’s just 7%.
The other big global population center is South Asia, which includes India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh; its history of poverty reduction is less heartening but still substantial.


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There’s a lot of work to be done, here, with two thirds of the South Asian population still living in poverty. But absolute poverty has declined quite dramatically in the past dozen years, which is certainly a start.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the most depressing story is in AIDS-ravaged sub-Saharan Africa.


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Even here, however, the percentage of the population living in poverty is no higher than it is in South Asia, and the number of people living in absolute poverty hasn’t actually gone up over the past 12 years.
Here are the other regions:


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It should be noted that all of these figures, and especially the African ones, come with massive error bars and caveats; Shanta Devarajan is very good on this. But the big picture is clear: there’s nothing Malthusian going on here. As the world’s population grows, we’re taking people out of poverty, rather than consigning them to it. Which is heartening news in a world of limited resources.


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