200million People are left in Extreme Poverty due to Unequal Growth

Global Development

Worsening inequality is a key challenge of our time. Evidence from Oxfam illustrates that next year, if current trends continue, the richest 1% of humanity will own half of global wealth. Our own computations show that over the MDG period (1990-2015), nearly 4 people in 5 lived in countries where the bottom 40% of the income distribution grew more slowly than the average.

We should be concerned about inequality for many reasons – just one of them is that it is intimately linked to levels of absolute deprivation. Growth can reduce poverty even if offset by rising inequality but it makes the challenge much harder. In light of the global call of the SDGs to ‘leave no one behind’ and the proposed target that the incomes of the bottom 40% within countries should exceed national averages, it becomes pertinent to think about what the poverty reducing effect might be.

One potential approach, featured in a recent World Bank working paper, is to undertake poverty projections over the next 15 years under different inequality scenarios. Another, which we adopt, is to estimate how many people would be poor today according to the $1.25 a day benchmark if countries had experienced more equal growth over the last 30 years.

Using some simplifying assumptions, we explore two scenarios. Under the first, ‘equal growth’, we assume the bottom 40% of the population grew at the same rate as the average of their country. Under another, ‘pro-poor growth’, we assume the bottom 40% grew faster than the average (we considered gaps of 1 to 3 percentage points, in line with the actual experiences of some countries in the past 3 decades). We wanted to keep overall growth constant so that we isolated the impact of inequality – this meant that any increase to the growth of incomes of the bottom 40% had to be subtracted from the incomes of richer people within that country. We considered two possibilities – if this income was subtracted equally from every person in the top 60% of the society, and if it came solely from those fortunate enough to be in the top 10%.

The headline finding: many fewer people could have been left behind in extreme poverty had growth been more equal over the last 30 years.

We first illustrate this claim, then highlight an important caveat.

  • Equal Growth Scenario

If all people within each country had experienced equal income growth, around 200 million more people – about 1 in 5 of those that are currently very poor – would have escaped extreme poverty. Interestingly, the difference is entirely due to unequal growth in many of today’s middle income countries (Chart 1). On average, today’s low income countries experienced relatively equal growth between the bottom 40% and the average.

Total Poverty by Income Category

Under this scenario, China could have effectively eliminated extreme poverty along with countries including Mexico and Peru. In other words, while growth played a key role in reducing extreme poverty in fast growing middle income countries like China, if growth had been equal, the impact on poverty could have been much bigger.

  • Pro-poor growth

Fewer than half as many people would live in extreme poverty today if the incomes of the bottom 40% of people in each country had grown two percentage points faster than the average. For example, extreme poverty could have been eliminated in Indonesia and Philippines and could have fallen to around 5% in India and Vietnam. This level of pro-poor growth is possible as it actually did occur in around a quarter of countries.

Now the key caveat… Initial poverty levels and the type of redistribution matter

In too many countries still, poverty rates over 40% are part of recent history or current reality. In these places, redistributing income bluntly from the top 60% of the population can actually increase poverty levels if it pushes people that were above the poverty line below it. One alternative is that these high-poverty countries redistribute income growth from the top 10% of their population alone – this is likely to reduce poverty in most but not all the countries we examined.

Whether growth is redistributed from the top 60% or the top 10% also has a potentially big impact on the global poverty (Chart 2). If growth is redistributed away from top 60%, then extreme poverty starts to increase when growth is more than 2 percentage points higher for the bottom 40% relative to the average. In contrast, if growth is redistributed away from top 10%, the global poverty rate continues to decline.

Extreme Poverty under different scenarios

So what can we learn from past experience?

This analysis illustrates that significantly more poverty reduction could have occurred if the income growth of the bottom 40% of the population was higher than the average in many MICs. In contrast, in most LICs this would have done very little to eliminate extreme poverty. To move towards the SDG poverty goal – to ‘end poverty in all its forms everywhere’ – growth needs to be more equally distributed in middle income countries. While in LICs, growth needs to be higher while continuing to be relatively equal across the distribution. But we also show that governments need to be very careful in how they redistribute in order to avoid perverse outcomes. ‘Leaving no one behind’ will require a careful mix of global ambition and careful attention to country realities.

 

This post originally featured on the Post-2015 Blog, available here: http://post2015.org/2015/07/30/how-many-people-were-left-behind-by-unequal-growth-during-the-mdg-period/

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Ending Extreme Poverty by 2030 requires a reduction in inequality

Global Development

Key Points

  • Extreme Poverty will not be eliminated by 2030 unless there is a historically unprecedented reduction in inequality.
  • The continuation of recent high economic growth rates for the next 15 years will not be enough to reach a 3% global extreme poverty rate by 2030.
  • For extreme poverty to be eliminated, the incomes of the bottom 40% of the income distribution (the poorest people) must grow an extra two percentage points higher than the average economic growth rate for the next 15 years.

Background

The latest estimates from the World Bank show that eliminating extreme poverty by 2030 is beyond humanity’s grasp, unless unparalleled steps are taken to reduce inequality. This is an important finding given that world leaders are set to commit to ‘Zero Poverty’ by 2030 as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Agenda. Reducing poverty and the SDGs are clearly about more than increasing incomes through economic growth. They are about broader issues such as health, education, gender equality, environmental sustainability, employment etc. However at the heart of SDGs is the notion of eliminating extreme poverty (defined as 3% or less of the world’s population living below $1.25 a day).

The continuation of recent high economic growth rates throughout most parts of the developing world will not be enough to reduce extreme poverty. Figure 1 shows how the global poverty rate is likely to change based upon historical growth patterns. Even in the best-case scenario, extreme poverty is likely to remain above 5% of the world’s population by 2030. While if growth rates are lower than they have recently been, like they were in the 1980s, then the global extreme poverty rate could be as high in 2030 as it is today.

Figure 1 – Changes in Extreme Poverty based upon different growth rates

Figure 1

The above predictions hold inequality constant. However if inequality was also reduced, along with these patterns of economic growth, extreme poverty could be eliminated. Figure 2 shows that if the incomes of those in the bottom 40% of the income distribution grow by an extra two percentage points faster than the average growth rate the target of a 3% global extreme poverty rate can be reached. This relies on growth rates continuing to be as high as they were in the 2000s and that the poorest people benefit the most from economic growth.

Figure 2 – Changes in Extreme Poverty based upon Growth for the Bottom 40%

Figure 2

Reducing inequality alongside growth appears to be a key factor in eliminating poverty. However achieving this will require significant changes to see the poor benefit the most from economic growth. These changes are essential if world leaders are serious about Zero Poverty being reached by 2030.

Source:

World Bank 2014 <http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/measuringpoverty/publication/a-measured-approach-to-ending-poverty-and-boosting-shared-prosperity>

The Beginning of the End of Extreme Poverty

Global Development

Key Points

  • In 1820, almost everyone in the world lived in extreme poverty. Since this time, incomes in the developed world have increased more than 12 fold, eradicating extreme poverty in these countries. In the UK, income per person was equivalent to Africa today in 1820 and to Latin America today in 1950. While in China income per person was equivalent to Africa today twenty-five years ago and is now similar to Latin America.
  • Income per person only tells part of the story of how living standards have changed over time. For example, due to improvements in medicine, child mortality in Africa is around one quarter of the rate of the UK in the early 1800s, even though they had similar income per person.
  • The eradication of extreme poverty in less than two centuries in some countries provides hope that extreme poverty can be eliminated from all countries.

Background

For most of human history, extreme poverty was the norm. This only began to change in the last couple of centuries as some countries (largely in Western Europe and North America) experienced prolonged periods of economic growth.

The chart below shows the steady increase in income per person over the last two hundred years in the UK. In 1820, income per person was equivalent to Africa today, while by 1950 incomes were similar to Latin America today.

Income per person overtime

Rapid economic growth in China led to the same increase in income per person, which took the UK 130 years, in just 25 years. This has led to hundreds of millions of people escaping from extreme poverty.

To get a more holistic understanding of how living standards have changed over time, it is important to go beyond the income per person measure. Advances in medicine have allowed for higher levels of development for a given income level than what today’s developed countries experienced in the 1800s. For example, in the UK in the early 1800s, every second child died before the age of five. While around one in seven children die before five in Africa today.

Next month, World Leaders will discuss the next Millennium Development Goals and whether to include a timeframe to end extreme poverty by 2030. This is a truly historic moment in human history as it was really only a couple of centuries ago that extreme poverty began to be permanently reduced.

Sources:

World Economics 2014 <http://www.worldeconomics.com/Data/MadisonHistoricalGDP/Madison%20Historical%20GDP%20Data.efp>

Copenhagan Consesus Center 2011 <http://www.copenhagenconsensus.com/sites/default/files/health.pdf>

 

Who even benefits from Economic Growth?

Global Development

Key Points

  1. The Australian Government has recently changed the focus of the aid program away from poverty alleviation towards economic growth.
  2. However, historically economic growth has disproportionately benefited rich households in developing countries.
  3. Even when economic growth is more equal for rich and poor alike (i.e. equal across the income distribution), the income gap between rich and poor households still increases.
  4. The objective of Australia’s aid program should revert back to helping people overcome poverty.

Background

The Australian Government has changed the focus of the aid program away from poverty alleviation towards economic growth. However, the analysis below shows it is likely that this will largely benefit the wrong end of the income distribution in developing countries. This is because rich households gain the most from economic growth.

While economic growth is often argued to be the solution to poverty in developing countries, poor households have not benefited as much from economic growth as rich households over the last decade. This conclusion can be reached by analysing the World Bank survey data available at the online database Povcal.

Two country specific examples for the last decade of available data are provided below: one with rich households experiencing the greatest economic growth (Indonesia), and the other with more equal economic growth across the income distribution (Philippines).

Unequal economic growth in Indonesia over the last decade resulted in huge increases in income for the richest households. The first diagram below shows that the average income growth experienced by the poorest 20% of households was less than half the rate of growth of the richest 20% of households. The second diagram illustrates the even more unequal change in income that the economic growth brought about. Each year the total increase in income for the richest 20% of households was similar to the other 80% of households combined. In other words, half of the increase in income from economic growth went to the top 20% of the income distribution.

Indo1 Indo2

The Philippines experienced more equal economic growth across the income distribution over the last decade, however a similar pattern emerges. The first diagram below shows that the richest 10% of households experienced around half the rate of growth of the other 90% of households. However as the second diagram shows the richest 10% still experienced a greater increase in income than all the other households. In fact, the richest 10% of households had an increase in income of more than five times the increase in income of the poorest 10% of households. This is because a decade ago the richest households had an income around 30 times larger than the poorest households.

Phil1Phil2

Recent history has shown that a reduction in the income gap between the rich and poor has not occurred in a developing country during a period of prolonged economic growth. This evidence suggests that economic growth does provide some benefits to the poor, however the rich are the main beneficiaries. Even when economic growth is distributed more equally across the income distribution.

With promoting economic growth as the objective of the aid program, Australia’s aid will not focus on those who need it most. The Australian Government should revert back to the previous objective of the aid program – poverty alleviation. Otherwise rich households, as opposed to those in extreme poverty, will benefit the most from the aid program.

Sources

World Bank 2014A <http://iresearch.worldbank.org/povcalnet/index.htm>

World Bank 2014B <http://data.worldbank.org/data-catalog/world-development-indicators>