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Laurence Chandy and Homi Kharas at Brookings, two Englishmen who provided him with unpublished data and were extremely generous with their time.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">


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many thanks to Nick Rizzo and to Laurence Chandy and Homi Kharas at Brookings, two Englishmen who provided him with unpublished data and were extremely generous with their time.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:


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.


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.


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:




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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What about other species? This is all anthropocentric and nothing but. What about environment? s

Posted by GPSO | Report as abusive

“But the big picture is clear: there’s nothing Malthusian going on here.”

Oh Felix, this is a comment beyond inane.
What’s managed to create this situation is OIL. The same oil that is running out — and may well trash the climate in many places just before it does run out.
Do you seriously think we can maintain the current population (kept fed by, eg, massive irrigation and nitrogen fertilizers) when the cheap energy ends?

The whole POINT of the messages of people like Ehrlich was to try to manage the situation, so that when the oil ends we have transitioned to a sustainable alternative. But that ship has sailed, and the only real question now is, when the oil ends, does the die-off occur through famine or nuclear weapons.
And this stupid — and (once up on a time preventable) — state of affairs has arisen precisely because of fools who think they are being clever by mocking Malthus.

Posted by handleym | Report as abusive

So somebody making $2.50/day isn’t in extreme, dire, freakin’ poverty? The middle extends from $3650/yr to $36,500 year?

It’s reports like this that make statistics seem meaningless. Since a dollar is not like a second or a meter in that its value is not only constantly changing, but is relative to other currencies, it seems useless to measure poverty in dollar terms. I’d rather see what percentage of the world has access to clean water, enough calories per day, shelter from the elements, and education.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

“there’s nothing Malthusian going on here.”


Unfortunately Felix the price of a stock trading at 5 times sales and 80 times earnings can still go up further. The problem is if sales and earnings do not continue the explosive growth that justified the huge multiples you eventually get a crash in all cases. It is the same with us I am afraid. Cheap energy is a drug more powerful and addictive than any narcotic. I do not belive an energy crash will happen in my lifetime but I do belive it will happen within a few generations.

Best hopes for our species to become the first in earth’s history to self regulate its population.

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive

y2kurtus is correct, if technology fails to advance within the next few generations. There are many plausible ways to produce cheap energy — even cheaper and cleaner than what we have today. They are not presently technologically feasible, but that could change given time and effort.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

People are not mouths to feed, but minds to unlock. The human mind is the greatest natural resource the world has ever seen.

Posted by Publius | Report as abusive

I am happy that we have had a time span where both population and some form of prosperity have coexisted. No one should assume that this relationship is an eternal verity. Our planetary population growth will continue to exert rising pressure on finite natural resources. We can all hope that the future will bring economic gains equal or exceeding population growth. But no natural law guarantees this, and we now have a decades-long failure to make the early promise of unlimited cheap nuclear power come true. A list of known problems–global climate change, depletion of fertilizer natural resources, etc., have conspired to raise food costs and render more nations dependent on imported food. At the least we should strive to enable individuals to have the means to choose whether or not to procreate.

Posted by Marvinlee | Report as abusive

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