The other economic trajectory: Global poverty in decline

Why We Wrote This

Often the media focus on economic challenges, such as widening inequality, persistent poverty, or stagnant incomes. That’s important, but so is taking note of real progress.

Oliver de Ros/AP
A boy chases pigeons at the central park in Guatemala City, July 12, 2019. According to the World Bank, Guatemala has the largest economy in Central America but is among the worst in Latin America on indicators of inequality and poverty, particularly in rural areas and among indigenous communities.

At a time of some big economic challenges, here’s a brighter perspective: The world in general has been making some big economic progress over the long term. Poverty is way down. Incomes are up.

This doesn’t mean the world can rest easy when it comes to the basics of work, opportunity, and safety nets in nations around the world. But it does show that there’s progress for those nations to defend, at a time when the public focus lately has been on everything from a trade war and fears of recession to political unrest.

Led by progress in Asia, extreme poverty has fallen from a level affecting about 36% of the world’s population in 1990 to 10% today. And the World Bank is targeting an achievable goal bringing that below 3% by 2030. More-open trade, freer markets, and stable governments have been big parts of that story.

Big gaps remain. Income inequality remains high, even as Asia’s catch-up to the West has rebalanced the global distribution of income somewhat. And ​inequality has been widening within many nations, ​which hints at why many people in the United States, for example, are questioning whether capitalism needs reform.

“People realize that it’s not enough to know how GDP is growing,” economist Gabriel Zucman said in a conversation this month with the group Equitable Growth in Washington, ”they want to know how income is growing for people like them.”

SOURCE: World Bank,
Karen Norris and Mark Trumbull/Staff
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