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Poverty Is a Choice

We live in what often feels like a biblically terrible time, marked by mass extinctions, deep recessions, epidemics, climate emergencies, inequality, and forever wars. But one thing, at least, has gotten better. More than 1 billion people have escaped extreme poverty—so many, so fast, that the world might be able to declare, within a decade, the end of this most miserable form of deprivation. 

“The global poverty rate is now lower than it has ever been in recorded history,” Jim Yong Kim, a former president of the World Bank, recently argued. “This is one of the greatest human achievements of our time.”

Or perhaps not. In an acidic rebuke to world leaders, the outgoing United Nations special rapporteur on poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, argues that the effort to end global poverty has failed. More people live in deprivation now than two decades ago. “We squandered a decade in the fight against poverty, with misplaced triumphalism blocking the very reforms that could have prevented the worst impacts of the pandemic,” Alston wrote in his last report.

So who’s right: Alston or Kim? The pessimistic argument is a hard one to make when looking at the raw, headline numbers. The global extreme-poverty rate fell from 36 percent in 1990 to 10 percent in 2015; the number of poor people dropped from 2 billion to 700 million. But Alston believes that by focusing only on those numbers, the world is deluding itself.

The divisions between the World Bank’s economists and the UN’s special rapporteur are in some sense technical, about where to set the poverty line. They are in a more important sense interpretive, about whether progress has been fast or slow, and whether today’s global poverty counts are laudable or tragic.

This is a realm of yes-ands and no-buts, not direct refutations. Extreme poverty has declined rapidly, but the extreme-poverty line is very low: A person living below it spends no more than $1.90 a day, enough in many poor countries to cover some starch, a few fruits and vegetables, some cooking oil, a bit of protein, and that’s about it—with nothing left over for utilities, education, health care, transportation, or investment in wealth-generating assets, such as a cow or a motorbike. That poverty threshold represents “a staggeringly low standard of living, well below any reasonable conception of a life with dignity,” Alston argues—it is a catastrophic-destitution measure, not a poverty measure. He emphasizes the lack of progress made at the $3.20-a-day and $5.50-a-day poverty lines, too. Half the world lives on less than the latter figure.

Alston takes issue with the fact that the World Bank’s extreme-poverty line is an absolute measure, not a relative one: It sets a line and sees how many people cross it, country by country, rather than pegging the poverty threshold to median income, country by country. But “relative poverty is what really counts these days,” Alston told me, as it captures social exclusion, and the way that living on a few dollars a day is more challenging in middle-income countries like India and Kenya than in low-income countries like Afghanistan and Chad. “In a poorer country,” the bank itself explains, “participating in the job market may require only clothing and food, whereas someone in a richer society may also need access to the internet, transportation, and a cell phone.”

The bank also acknowledges that the global extreme-poverty line is low. It has generated a measure that includes relative poverty, and produces counts at the $3.20-a-day and $5.50-a-day lines. Its economists, researchers, and program experts stress that rising above the extreme-poverty line is no guarantee against malnutrition, stunted growth, early death, or any of the other horrible consequences of destitution.

But Alston’s most controversial, and most important, argument is that the focus on progress measured against the $1.90-a-day line—the prevalence of “everything’s getting better” arguments, made by Davos types like Bill Gates and Steven Pinker—has hampered progress toward true poverty eradication, and toward civil rights, social inclusion, and a basic standard of living for all. “By being able to rely so heavily on the World Bank's flagship figure, they can say, ‘Look, progress has been consistent. We’ve been doing great,’” Alston told me. “The implication of that is that the triumph of neoliberalism has brought with it very significant benefits for poor people. In reality, that’s just not the case.”

What if world leaders and multilateral institutions focused on the $5.50 line, or measures of poverty that capture social exclusion and relative deprivation? What if the headline story were that half the world still qualifies as desperately poor, and poverty head counts remain stubbornly high in dozens of countries? What if the story were not that we are succeeding, but that we are failing?

That story would not capture all the good that has happened in terms of infant-mortality rates falling, school-enrollment numbers rising, and malnutrition fading. But it would hold the world accountable for the fact that poverty is, always and everywhere, a choice. Alston’s view, and a necessary one, is that the world cannot wait for economic expansion to lift people above the poverty line. It cannot count on trade compacts and infrastructure projects and the ticking of GDP growth rates from 2.3 to 3.2 percent to do it. It needs direct interventions by governments, as fast as possible, to eliminate inequality and build safety nets, even in the poorest places.

Annie Lowrey