The World Bank has a new international poverty line and is celebrating the rapid decrease in the percentage of people living in poverty. According to the World Bank, the world poverty rate will fall below 10% this year; we are on our way to ending world poverty. Unfortunately, this is a story based on misleading measurements, one that largely serves to buttress the status quo and blunt demands for real change in global economic processes.
The World Bank’s new international poverty line, announced in October 2015, is set at $1.90 per day in 2011 purchasing power parity dollars. Before discussing the origins of that line, it is worth taking a moment to consider how low that level truly is. As Jason Hickley explains:
How much is $1.90 per day, adjusted for purchasing power? Technically, it represents the international equivalent of what $1.90 could buy in the United States in 2011. But we know that this amount of money is inadequate to achieve even the most basic nutrition. The US Department of Agriculture calculates that in 2011 the very minimum necessary to buy sufficient food was $5.04 per day. And that’s not taking account of other requirements for survival, such as shelter and clothing.
If you multiply $1.90 times 365 you get the princely annual sum of $693.50. Imagine living on that in the United States in 2011, and then imagine that according to the World Bank if you make more than that (or its equivalent in other countries) you are no longer to be classified as poor.
Calculating the global poverty line
Countries have their own poverty line calculated in their own respective currencies. Having a global poverty line means (1) converting national poverty lines to a common standard and (2) finding a way to devise a single number that would have relevance for every country.
While it might be tempting to overcome the first challenge by converting every country’s national poverty line into a dollar value using the existing exchange rate between the country’s currency and the dollar, this would produce widely and rapidly fluctuating poverty lines. Moreover many goods and services are not traded internationally and so their prices are not actually changed by exchange rate movements.
Therefore, the World Bank employs a different approach. In broad brush, it constructs a so-called basket of consumer goods and services and determines its cost in the United States in a particular year. Next, it attempts to determine the national costs of a similar basket in most third world countries. Finally, it calculates a purchasing power parity exchange rate for the dollar and the currencies of these countries using these relative costs. In theory, at least, one can then talk about a standardized purchasing power expressed in dollars.
The Bank sought to overcome the second challenge by first using purchasing power parity exchange rates to convert national poverty lines denominated in local currencies into dollars. Bank researchers then selected, somewhat arbitrarily, the newly converted poverty lines of 15 of the lowest income countries, and determined a consensus poverty line. It is this consensus poverty line that serves as the Bank’s international poverty line. Finally, the Bank attempts to estimate the number of people in each country with earnings below that line.
Because the measurement process is expensive and time consuming, the Bank only makes periodic updates to its poverty line. The 1993 purchasing power parity international poverty line was set at $1.08 a day. The 2005 purchasing power parity international poverty line was set at $1.25 a day. And the newly released 2011 purchasing power parity international poverty line was determined to be $1.90 a day.
The figure below, taken from a study by Rahul Lahoti and Sanjay Reddy, highlights the percentage of the world population living below the poverty line for a number of different poverty lines. As one can see, the percentage of those living in poverty according to the Bank’s latest poverty line is rapidly falling. In fact, the gains are even greater using the new poverty line than the previous one.
Problems with the Bank’s work
There are many problems with the Bank’s methodology, most importantly its framework is rather arbitrary. Why should the Bank choose the poorest countries to set a poverty line? As Hickley points out:
The World Bank picked the $1.90 line because it’s the average of the national poverty lines of the very poorest countries in the world, like Chad and Burundi. But it tells us very little about what poverty is like in most other countries. The bank itself admits that poverty in Latin America, for example, should be measured at about $6 a day. And yet for some reason it persists with the $1.90 line.
Perhaps even more telling there is little reason to have confidence that national poverty lines accurately capture poverty status or that the basket of goods and services used to construct the purchasing power parity exchange rates truly measure basic needs.
And then there are all the difficulties of the computations. Many of the poorest countries do not have poverty that clearly differentiate between rural and urban poverty or national consumer price indicies, all of which require the Bank to make a number of estimates and/or use adhoc measures to make its calculations.
Moreover, it is tricky to use international poverty lines calculated in one year to measure poverty rates in past or future years. The international poverty lines are based on prices in a base year which are shaped by the structure of the world economy in that year, while prices in different countries shift yearly in response to changing local and international conditions. For a more complete discussion of these and other points see the above cited study by Lahoti and Reddy.
Alternative measures and poverty trends
While Lahoti and Reddy call for the construction of an alternative measure of poverty, one that relies not on income but a concrete measure of the goods and services required to live a non-poverty life, they do offer, using U.S. Department of Agricultural data, an alternative estimate of international poverty to illustrate the problematic nature of the World Bank’s work.
As they explain:
The Thrifty Food Plan produced by the US Dept. of Agriculture Center of Nutrition Policy and Promotion established, with great care, the minimum cost of achieving “Recommended Dietary Allowances” in the United States. It does so for a model family of a specified size and composition by collecting “scanner” price data from markets around the US and calculating the mathematical least cost of achieving the allowances at these prices (using linear programming techniques) and by subsequently modestly adjusting the amount to make some allowance for prevailing tastes. It then verifies that the amount suffices for cooking model recipes in a test kitchen. The allowance is based entirely on the supposition of home cooking and makes no reference to the costs of the kitchen or the cooking pots. By definition, the Thrifty Food Plan allowance does not suffice for any non-food requirement (e.g. for shelter, clothing, transportation etc.). It can therefore be taken as a lower bound on real requirements in the US. However, to take note of the possible criticism that the Thrifty Food Plan allowances are overly generous, we consider expenditure levels corresponding both to those allowances (based on per person per day costs in a family of four with two children of intermediate ages) and to half their value. In 2011, these amounts were respectively $5.04 and $2.52. These can be thought of as food poverty lines to which non-food requirements must be added, but have not been. Further, we apply both general consumption PPPs (as does the Bank) and food PPPs more appropriate to food requirements in particular. Combining these possibilities leads to four alternative poverty lines and resulting poverty estimates.
Looking at poverty trends using the $5.04 2011 Food PPP and 2011 PPP we see in the figure above that declines in poverty are quite recent, dating to 2000. These gains no doubt reflect the high country growth rates powered by soaring commodity prices. Those prices are now in sharp decline as are growth rates. Regardless, the percentage of the world population below the poverty line remains extremely high, well over 50%.
The figure below shows numbers of poor rather than percentages. These two alternative measures show increases, not decreases, in the number of poor people relative to 1980 and 1990.
Hickley offers two other poverty estimates, both of which also show levels of world poverty far higher than that claimed by the World Bank:
One option is to count poverty country-by-country using each nation’s own poverty line, with $1.90 as an absolute floor. If we did that, we would see that about 1.7 billion people remain in poverty today, which is more than 70% higher than the World Bank would have us believe.
If we want to stick with a single international line, we might use the “ethical poverty line” devised by Peter Edward of Newcastle University. He calculates that in order to achieve normal human life expectancy of just over 70 years, people need roughly 2.7 to 3.9 times the existing poverty line. In the past, that was $5 a day. Using the bank’s new calculations, it’s about $7.40 a day. As it happens, this number is close to the average of national poverty lines in the global south.
The UN and the World Bank are strongly committed to the World Bank’s results because it allows both organizations to declare the success of their efforts. The UN, for example, recently declared its Millennium Development Goals successfully met, thanks in large part to World Bank poverty estimates. Now, it has launched its Sustainable Development Goals, which includes the eradication of world poverty.
The bankruptcy, perhaps better said danger, in this concerted effort to legitimate business as usual is clearly expressed in the following public letter to the UN by Noam Chomsky and other leading scholar/activists:
As the UN and the world’s governments ratify the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) today (September 25), we must be clear that they do not represent the best interests of the world’s majority — those that are currently exploited and oppressed within the current economic and political order.
The SDGs claim they can eradicate poverty in all its forms by 2030. But they rely primarily on global economic growth to achieve this tremendous task. If such growth resembles that seen in recent decades, it will take 100 years for poverty to disappear, not the15 years the SDGs promise. And even if this were possible in a shorter timescale, we would need to increase the size of the global economy by a factor of 12, which, in addition to making our planet uninhabitable, will obliterate any gains against poverty.
Rather than paper over such obvious madness with false hopes, we must address two critical issues head on: income inequality and endless material growth.
If poverty is to be truly overcome by 2030, then much of the improvement in the position of the impoverished must come through reduction in the enormous inequality that has accumulated in the last 200 plus years. The richest 1 percent of humanity will very soon own over half of the world’s private wealth. It would take only modest reductions in inequality to deliver large increases in the socio-economic position of the poorer half of humanity.
The SDGs do talk about reducing inequality. However, their prescription is technocratic, obscure and wholly incommensurate to the task at hand. For example, Target 10.1 states that by 2030 they will “progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average.” It is hard to imagine a less robust or ambitious goal. This commitment allows inequality to grow without limit until 2029, so long as it then begins to be reduced. The SDGs thus fail to endorse the only means that can achieve their stated goal of ending poverty: substantial inequality reduction, starting now. In effect, they perpetuate severe poverty and leave this fundamental problem to future generations.
The other essential task is for the world’s nations to adopt a saner measure of human progress; one that gears us not towards endless GDP growth based on extraction and consumption, but towards the wellbeing of humanity and our planet as a whole. There are plenty of options to choose from, all of which have been ignored in the SDGs. Instead, Target 17.19 says only that they will, “by 2030, build on existing initiatives to develop measurements of progress on sustainable development that complement GDP”. Another urgent challenge passed down to the next generation.
It is possible to overcome poverty in a way that respects the Earth and helps tackle climate change. The planet is abundant in wealth and its people infinitely resourceful. In order to do so, however, we must be prepared to challenge the logic of endless growth, greed and destruction enshrined in neoliberal capitalism.
It is time to envision a new operating system, based on social justice and symbiosis with the natural world. As currently formulated, the SDGs merely distract us from addressing the challenges we face.
Noam Chomsky, MIT
Thomas Pogge, Yale University
Naomi Klein, Author and activist
Eve Ensler, Playwright and activist
Chris Hedges, Pullitzer-prize winning journalist and author
Helena Norberg-Hodge, International Society for Ecology and Culture
Anuradha Mittal, Oakland Institute
Tom Goldtooth, Indigenous Environmental Network
Maude Barlow, Author and human rights activist
David Graeber, London School of Economics
Medha Patkar, National Alliance of People’s Movments, India
Alnoor Ladha, The Rules