There is a new paper available at Cliometrica. It is co-authored by Mathieu Lefebvre, Pierre Pestieau and Gregory Ponthiere and it deals with how the poor were counted in the past. More precisely, if the poor had “a survival disadvantage” they would die. As the authors make clear “poor individuals, facing worse survival conditions than non-poor ones, are under-represented in the studied populations, which
pushes poverty measures downwards.” However, any good economist would agree that people who died in a year X (say 1688) ought to have their living standards considered before they died in that same year (Amartya Sen made the same point about missing women). If not, you will undercount the poor and misestimate their actual material misery.
So what do Lefebvre et al. do deal with this? They adapt what looks like a population transition matrix (which is generally used to study in-,out-migration alongside natural changes in population — see example 10.15 in this favorite mathematical economics textbook of mine) to correctly estimate what the poor population would have been in a given years. Obviously, some assumptions have to be used regarding fertility and mortality differentials with the rich — but ranges can allow for differing estimates to get a “rough idea” of the problem’s size. What is particularly neat — and something I had never thought of — is that the author recognize that “it is not necessarily the case that a higher evolutionary advantage for the non-poor over the poor pushes measured poverty down”. Indeed, they point out that “when downward social mobility is high”, poverty measures can be artificially increased upward by “a stronger evolutionary advantage for the non-poor”. Indeed, if the rich can become poor, then the bias could work in the opposite direction (overstating rather than understating poverty). This is further added to their “transition matrix” (I do not have a better term and I am using the term I use in classes).
What is their results? Under assumptions of low downward mobility, pre-industrial poverty in England is understated by 10 to 50 percentage points (that is huge — as it means that 75% of England at worse was poor circa 1688 — I am very skeptical about this proportion at the high-end but I can buy a 35-40% figure without a sweat). What is interesting though is that they find that higher downward mobility would bring down the proportion by 5 percentage points. The authors do not speculate much as to how likely was downward mobility but I am going to assume that it was low and their results would be more relevant if the methodology was applied to 19th century America (which was highly mobile up and down — a fact that many fail to appreciate).
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!)
Have you seen this chart? I certainly have. It floats around on social media a lot. The chart seems to indicate that poor Americans are better off than the average person in most other rich countries. Roughly equal to Canada and France, and better off than Denmark or New Zealand.
When I’ve asked for sources in the past, people usually aren’t sure. They remember downloading it from somewhere, but they can’t recall where.
But I think I found the source: it’s this article from JustFacts. After seeing how they calculated it, I’m skeptical that it provides a good comparison of poor Americans to other countries.
Here’s what the chart does. For most countries, it uses a World Bank measure of consumption per capita. They then convert that to US dollars using PPP adjustments. For the poor in the US, they use a consumption estimate for the bottom 20% of households (Table 6), and then divide by the average number of people per household. For the poor in the US, the average consumption for 2010 was an amazing $57,049, more than double the poverty line! That’s about $21,000 per poor person.
How is this possible?