Twenty-five years ago today the United Nation General Assembly issued a resolution declaring October to be the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The stated purpose of the resolution was to “raise public awareness to promote the eradication of poverty and extreme poverty in all countries.” The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than $1.90 per person per day.
Let’s test your awareness about extreme poverty with a simple question: Would you say that over the past three decades (since the 1980s) the percentage of people in the world who live in extreme poverty has:
(C) Remained the same
The correct answer is B—extreme poverty has not only decreased but has actually been reduced substantially. In 1980 almost half the world’s population (44 percent) was living in extreme poverty. Today, that number has dropped to below 10 percent.
If you assumed it increased, though, you aren’t alone. A 2014 survey by the Barna Group found more than eight in 10 Americans (84 percent) were unaware global poverty has declined, and more than two-thirds (67 percent) thought global poverty had risen during that period. Additionally, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults (68 percent) said they didn’t believe it’s possible to end extreme global poverty within the next 25 years.
One exception to this pessimism was practicing Christians. Defined by Barna as people who have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life, practicing Christians younger than 40 were the most optimistic at nearly half (48 percent), with practicing Christians older than 40 slightly higher than the general population (37 percent compared to 32 percent of all adults).
Reason for Hope
Every Christians should be hopeful about this trend, for the reduction of global poverty over the past few decades has been nothing short of miraculous, and the eradication of extreme poverty in the next few decades is a real possibility.
To understand why we can be hopeful we need to consider the historical trend. HumanProgress.org has a fascinating chart that compares the number of people living in extreme poverty (the orange line) with the number of people not living in extreme poverty (the blue line).
If the lines extended further to the left, we’d see them grow closer together. From the time Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden until about 1820, almost everyone in the world lived in extreme poverty. The Industrial Revolution, though, helped to lift many people above a subsistence-level standard of living. But the gains were extremely limited. By 1820 there were about 1.1 billion people in the world, of which more than 1 billion were still living in extreme poverty. As we see, from 1820 to about 1950 the two lines remain almost parallel.
Then around 1970 a seismic shift occurred. Just as the Zero Population Growth activists began to predict the world would run out of food and we’d all starve to death, economic growth began to carry more and more people out of poverty.
As poverty researchers Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina explain, since around 1970 we began “living in a world in which the number of non-poor people is rising, while the number of poor people is falling. According to the estimates . . . there were 2.2 billion people living in extreme poverty in 1970, and there were 705 million people living in extreme poverty in 2015. The number of extremely poor people in the world is three-times lower than in 1970.”
The rate of extreme poverty reduction began to increase even faster after 1990. As Roser and Ortiz-Ospina note,
In 1990, there were 2 billion people living in extreme poverty. With a reduction to 705 million in 2015, this means that on average, every day in the 25 years between 1990 and 2015, 137,000 fewer people were living in extreme poverty.
On every day in the last 25 years there could have been a newspaper headline reading, “The number of people in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 since yesterday.” Unfortunately, the slow developments that entirely transform our world never make the news.
This reduction in extreme poverty is one of the greatest, though largely unheralded, achievements in human history. Can it continue?
How Low Can We Go?
In 1990, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals included a target of halving poverty by 2015. That goal was achieved five years early. The new goal set in 2015, shared by both the UN and the World Bank, is to move almost all the world’s population above the extreme poverty line by 2030. Is that even possible?
While the ambitious goal is theoretically achievable, it’ll be difficult. Most of the reduction in poverty since 1990 has been because of the economic growth of India and China. In 1990, 51 percent of the population of India lived in extreme poverty. Today, it is about 20 percent. Improvements in China have been even more stunning. In 1981, 88 percent of the Chinese population lived in abject poverty. Today, the number has declined to about 2 percent.
Increases in free trade and rapid economic growth transformed China and India. Unfortunately, that isn’t as likely to happen in the areas of the world that currently have the highest rates of poverty. Much of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, struggles with corruption and armed conflict, and depends on foreign aid, which tends to slow a nation’s economic growth. The result is that sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where the number of poor people has increased during the past three decades. (Although the percentage of the African population living in extreme poverty is slightly lower than in 1981, population growth has caused the total number to double.)
The End (Almost) of Extreme Poverty
Even if the UN and World Bank target is reached, though, it won’t mean no one on the planet is living in poverty. Just as “frictional unemployment” (about 4 percent) exists when there is full employment, “frictional poverty” (around 3 percent to 8 percent) will continue even when extreme poverty has “ended.” With an estimated global population of 8.3 billion in 2030, that would mean between 249 million and 664 million people will still live in poverty.
The idea that extreme poverty could “end” and yet twice the current U.S. population be living on less than $1.90 a day may sound underwhelming. Even as we reach the “end of extreme poverty” we’ll still need to continue the fight until every person on earth has what they need to live. Yet considering that for most of human history everyone lived in extreme poverty, reducing the number to a mere 8 percent of the global population would be an astounding achievement.
Meeting the goal by 2030 will take an unprecedented level of effort. But it could happen. If we succeed, we will be witness to one of history’s greatest accomplishments and one of the most profound blessings God has given humanity since the beginning of creation.