Wow. This is a capitalist miracle: extreme poverty is rapidly declining!
— Bill Gates (@BillGates) January 19, 2019
Except…what is extreme poverty? What about regular poverty? Is there something we could call moderate poverty? And, errm, where do those numbers from the 1800s and 1500s come from? Why is the 19th century represented with such a smooth, gradual improvement when we know that the lives of so many were ruined and suffering by colonialism (where does Rhodesia fit into this graph) and slavery? Those are charts that raise more questions than they answer.
Jason Hickel tries to answer some of the questions. The early numbers are guesswork, molded into the desired form, and the economic data are a case of applying an invalid metric to messy human reality.
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.
In other words, Roser’s graph illustrates a story of coerced proletarianisation. It is not at all clear that this represents an improvement in people’s lives, as in most cases we know that the new income people earned from wages didn’t come anywhere close to compensating for their loss of land and resources, which were of course gobbled up by colonisers. Gates’s favourite infographic takes the violence of colonisation and repackages it as a happy story of progress.
So money is a convenient proxy for real wealth, which is land and resources and labor, and using it as a metric conceals the fact that a few people have seized most of the real wealth, and masked their theft by doling out pittances to the displaced billions.
As if that isn’t enough, “extreme poverty” is an arbitrary parameter chosen to hide the ongoing grand larceny by people like Gates. It had to be set extremely low so that you wouldn’t see what’s actually been happening.
But that’s not all that’s wrong here. The trend that the graph depicts is based on a poverty line of $1.90 (£1.44) per day, which is the equivalent of what $1.90 could buy in the US in 2011. It’s obscenely low by any standard, and we now have piles of evidence that people living just above this line have terrible levels of malnutrition and mortality. Earning $2 per day doesn’t mean that you’re somehow suddenly free of extreme poverty. Not by a long shot.
Scholars have been calling for a more reasonable poverty line for many years. Most agree that people need a minimum of about $7.40 per day to achieve basic nutrition and normal human life expectancy, plus a half-decent chance of seeing their kids survive their fifth birthday. And many scholars, including Harvard economist Lant Pritchett, insist that the poverty line should be set even higher, at $10 to $15 per day.
So what happens if we measure global poverty at the low end of this more realistic spectrum – $7.40 per day, to be extra conservative? Well, we see that the number of people living under this line has increased dramatically since measurements began in 1981, reaching some 4.2 billion people today. Suddenly the happy Davos narrative melts away.
You know, if Bill Gates set a Universal Basic Income of $3 a day, he could set “extreme poverty” in the US to zero. What a triumph! I’m trying to imagine what I could do on $3 a day. I know I could live cheaply on a diet of rice and beans for that, but, well, just my mortgage is 10 times that, and it was -36°C this morning. Forget about owning a car. Or having electricity. Or getting sick. Right now, on an income considerably greater than that, one debilitating illness could wipe me out.
Shorter Bill Gates: Relatively fewer people are dropping dead in the streets of starvation or cholera today, so therefore concentrating billions of dollars into my hands is good for everyone.