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Extreme Poverty Is Declining, But We're Aiming Too Low

Earning more than $2 a day isn't something to brag about in most nations.

Extreme Poverty Is Declining, But We're Aiming Too Low

Illustrations: donatas1205 via Shutterstock

The world is less poor than ever. The share of the world population living in "absolute poverty" is lower than it has ever been, according to data from the NYU Development Research Institute.

As you can see from the chart above, the proportion of the human population living in extreme poverty is down from almost everyone a couple of hundred years ago to under 10% today. Taking just the data from the World Bank, which runs from 1981 until today, the percentage of extremely poor people has dropped by three quarters, to just under 10% of the total world population.

But these data, while encouraging, don’t really tell the whole story. For example, today there are over 7 billion souls on Earth, and 10% equals 700 million people. Back in 1820, where this data begins, there were barely more than 1 billion people living, which means that the numbers haven’t changed that much at all, in terms of suffering due to poverty.

Fast forward to the mid 1950s, when actual data becomes available for the world population, and our graph shows the start of a sharp spike downwards in poverty levels. The world circa 1955 was home to just 2.5 billion people, and the percentage of people living on $2 a day or less was 72%, or 1.8 billion humans. So, while a drop from 94% to 9.6% sounds great, in terms of actual individuals the difference is much smaller.

But perhaps the most misleading part of this data is that "extreme poverty" is defined as living on less than $1.90 per day. That’s $693.50 a year. The chart’s numbers are adjusted worldwide, to account for price differences between countries, but even then, places like the U.S. and most Northern European countries don’t make it onto the charts, even though you’d have to work for less than two hours a week at minimum wage to earn $1.90 per day.

The $1.90 figure might be useful when talking about poverty in less developed economies, but it’s far too low for talking about the United States. Even so, there are more than a million U.S. households surviving on $2 per day or less. According to this National Poverty Center brief from 2012, "about 1.46 million U.S. households with about 2.8 million children were surviving on $2 or less in income per person per day in a given month," and "about 866,000 households appear to live in extreme poverty across a full calendar quarter."

Worse, these numbers are rising, against the worldwide trend. So while in a general sense, extreme poverty is dwindling, what these numbers really tell us is that we’re aiming too low, and that, despite this, we’re still failing. Two bucks a day isn’t any kind of target to be proud of, and yet it still seems too hard of a target to meet.

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