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How close are we to ending extreme poverty?

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Today is the 25th anniversary of the declaration by the UN General Assembly designating October 17 as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than $1.90 per person per day. How close are we to eliminating that level of poverty? Closer than you may think.

From the beginning of human history until about 1970, there were more people living in extreme poverty than people who were not. But around 1970 economic growth, especially in China and India, began to lift millions out abject destitution. As poverty researchers Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina explain, since around 1970 we began “living in a world in which the number of non-poor people is rising, while the number of poor people is falling. According to the estimates … there were 2.2 billion people living in extreme poverty in 1970, and there were 705 million people living in extreme poverty in 2015. The number of extremely poor people in the world is 3 times lower than in 1970.”

The estimate of 702 million people means that about 9.6 percent of the global population was still living in extreme poverty in 2015. That compares to 10.7 percent of the global population in 2013 and 12.8 percent in 2012. If we assume that the poverty rate has decreased a minimum of 1 percent per year since 2015, the rate should be around 7.6 percent.

Just as “frictional unemployment” (about 4 percent) exists when there is full employment, “frictional poverty” (around 3 to 8 percent) will continue even when extreme poverty has “ended.” It’s therefore possible that we are already below the threshold of frictional poverty and that we’ve already met—or getting close to meeting—the standard for having ended extreme poverty as a global problem.

The idea that extreme poverty may have already “ended” and yet twice the current U.S. population be living on less than $1.90 a day may sound underwhelming. Even as we reach the “end of extreme poverty” we’ll still need to continue, of course, to seek to have every person on earth have what they need to live. Yet considering that for most of human history everyone lived in extreme poverty, reducing the number to a mere 8 percent of the global population would be an astounding achievement and one of the greatest blessings in the history of the world. We may have a lot of work left to do, but we should be grateful to God for having come so far in the past few decades.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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