Ooh those tricky poverty lines

Noah Smith had a rather exasperated blogpost (or newsletter post) out recently about Jason Hickel.

Hickel, an anthropologist by training, has two major theses about the world:

He believes that global poverty reduction is a myth, and
He believes that degrowth is the best solution to environmental problems.
Both theses are wrong. And not just wrong in the “Ackshually, sir, you don’t have the facts quite right” sense, but wrong in consequential, potentially dangerous ways. In this post I’m only going to push back against the first of these two narratives; I promise I will write more about degrowth later, and in the meantime you can read this and this.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/against-hickelism

As usual, please do read the whole thing.

In that post, Noah Smith refers to an article by Hickel in The Guardian a couple of years ago. Here’s an excerpt:

What Roser’s numbers actually reveal is that the world went from a situation where most of humanity had no need of money at all to one where today most of humanity struggles to survive on extremely small amounts of money. The graph casts this as a decline in poverty, but in reality what was going on was a process of dispossession that bulldozed people into the capitalist labour system, during the enclosure movements in Europe and the colonisation of the global south.
Prior to colonisation, most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity. They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well – so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor. This way of life was violently destroyed by colonisers who forced people off the land and into European-owned mines, factories and plantations, where they were paid paltry wages for work they never wanted to do in the first place.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/29/bill-gates-davos-global-poverty-infographic-neoliberal

I honestly don’t know where to begin in terms of refuting just this excerpt, let alone the rest of the essay, but thankfully, I don’t really need to. Noah Smith takes on part of the burden in his essay already, and Max Roser also pads up in this essay:

You can see this more clearly in the chart below. Clicking on the ‘relative’ button shifts the chart from absolute numbers to percentages. Whilst the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has been falling consistently since 1820, it is only in recent decades that this has translated into a decline in the number of people living in extreme poverty.

https://ourworldindata.org/extreme-history-methods
The chart above is absolute numbers, while the one below is in percentage terms. Both charts are from the essay by Roser linked to above. Here is the link again.

Look, much remains to be done in our battle with poverty. Much, much more. The fight is nowhere close to finishing, and we still aren’t sure about how to best reduce poverty – and by we I mean even the best of economists, no matter how you measure “best”. But this fact is incontestable: the world is better off today than it was a century ago, and that by various measures. One of which is the fact that poverty levels are down. By how much, by which yardstick, for which country and why – all are questions worthy of debate. Your answer about the magnitude of reduction in absolute levels of poverty might differ from mine, as might your choice of poverty line. It might also differ in terms of proximate cause.

But not the direction. Your answer about the direction when it comes to reduction of poverty ought to be the same: lower.

2 thoughts on “Ooh those tricky poverty lines

  1. I haven’t read Jason Hickle’s work properly so i cannot comment on it, but any person proposing that “Degrowth” is the solution to our problems is someone not to be taken seriously!! 😤

  2. A good read sir.

    If possible could you please elaborate more on how this reduction is geographically disbursed. I personally imagine African nations to be the largest contributor to the decline as developed countries are looking for untapped markets and Africa remains largely untapped.

    Could you please also advise when the poverty line was last changed by the world bank as I feel it is possible for individuals to earn more than $1.90 as the years pass but if it is not updated regularly; then accounting for inflation is it really a good measure.

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