The global population living in extreme poverty has fallen below 750 million for the first time since the World Bank began collecting global statistics in 1990, a decline of more than 1 billion people in the past 25 years. In a report released Wednesday, the World Bank said the extreme poverty rate had dropped to 10% as of 2015, the latest comprehensive data, and they estimate that the decline has continued over the past three years. The World Bank defines “extreme poverty” as living on less than $1.90 a day, or about $694 a year. The sum, which is based on measures of poverty determined by many low-income countries, is the amount it takes to afford minimal basic needs. The figure is comparable, adjusted for inflation, to the $1-a-day threshold that became popular in the 1990s as the marker of extreme poverty. In 1990, more than 1.9 billion people lived below the extreme poverty threshold, a rate of 36%. The total number of people living in extreme poverty was 736 million in 2015.
“Despite recent gains, the number of people globally who are living in poverty remains unacceptably high,” the World Bank said in its report. The report highlights the extent to which global poverty has shifted geographically. In 1990, nearly 1 billion of those living in extreme poverty were in East Asia, but decades of rapid economic development in China and other East Asian economies has brought that figure down to 47 million, a decline to a 2% poverty rate from 62%. South Asia, with most of its population in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, has seen the number living in extreme poverty fall to 216 million from more than 500 million to 12% from 47%. Sub-Saharan Africa has made less progress. Its poverty rate has fallen to 41% from 54% since 1990, but population growth has been so rapid that the number of people in extreme poverty has climbed above 400 million, from 278 million in 1990. The figures underscore the conclusions of a recent study from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which found that the number of people living in extreme poverty is becoming concentrated in some of the most unstable parts of Africa.
The World Bank and Gates Foundation both found that more than half of the people living in extreme poverty are now in the sub-Saharan Africa region and that poverty is likely to become increasingly concentrated in that region. The World Bank has been promoting a goal of reducing the extreme poverty rate below 3% by 2030, but said that this goal “will only be met under very optimistic growth scenarios and if inequality at the bottom is tackled directly and the bottom 40 per cent catches up with the rest.” The World Bank’s measure of extreme poverty is different from the poverty rate used in wealthy countries. In the U.S. for example, the Census Bureau says 12.3% of the population was living in poverty in 2017, using a threshold of about $12,500 a year for a single person. This reflects that necessities are more expensive in higher-income countries, but also serves to underscore how extreme the poverty is that the World Bank seeks to eradicate. And even wealthy countries like the U.S. haven’t completely eliminated extreme poverty. The World Bank figures show that even in developed countries, about seven million people live on less than $1.90 a day.
Credit: Josh Zumbrun for The Wall Street Journal, 19 September 2018.