A few days ago on Twitter, Nathan Robinson made the claim that global capitalism wasn’t reducing poverty. In fact, it appears that poverty, using the threshold of $10/day (rather than the usual lower numbers) has increased from 1981 to 2017:
While there were a lot of critical responses to him on Twitter, he’s not wrong about the data: in 2017, there were 1.3 billion more people living on less than $10 per day (we’re going to assume in this post that the underlying data is basically correct, and correctly adjusted for inflation and purchasing power). It’s also true that at lower thresholds, such as $1.90 and $3.20, the absolute number of poor people has declined. And as a proportion of the world population, fewer people are under $10 per day. But in absolute terms there are more people under $10 per day. And not just a few: over a billion! There are also a lot more people above $10/day in the world than in 1981 (1.7 billion more!), but I agree that we should be concerned if there are more poor people too.
So how should we think about these numbers? Here’s what I think is the fundamental problem with Robinson’s claim: he asserts that the entire world has experienced something called “global capitalism” during this time period. But there has been considerable variation in the extent to which countries have experienced something we would call “capitalism,” and the degree to which it has increased in the past 40 years (I wrote a series of Tweets on this too).
The easiest way to see this is to break down that 1.3 billion people into different countries. Where were the biggest increases? Also, did any countries experience decreases in poverty? (Spoiler alert: YES!)Continue reading