How Do You Count People In Poverty?

How Do You Count People In Poverty?

The Economist commented in October 2015, “The number of poor people is declining, but the data are fuzzy.” Finally, The Economist concludes, “Counting the poor, it seems, is almost as hard as helping them.” In 2000, the United Nations (UN) announced their goal of eradicating poverty by the year 2030. And as one USAID official announced recently, “Over the last 30 years, extreme poverty has been cut in half.”

Or has it?

The term “extreme poverty” is usually used to describe levels of consumption by the world’s poorest people. In 1990, the World Bank defined this as $1 a day or less. Today it’s $1.90 a day or less. The World Bank says that 1.9 billion people lived on less than $1.90 a day in 1990. In 2015, it was 702 million. Don’t bother doing the math: that’s a 74.1% decline in extreme poverty in 25 years.

And if those numbers are accurate, the decline in global poverty is something to celebrate! Yet as critics from the Princeton economist and Nobel Prize in Economics winner Angus Deaton to the prolific writer and development economist William Easterly say, the global poverty line might not be the best way to count the number of people living in poverty.

Poverty Is About More Than Consumption

At Food for the Hungry (FH), we have to believe that ending poverty is about much more than just increasing consumption. Remember, consumption is the main factor measured by the global poverty line. But people are more, not less, than what we consume. As a faith-based organization, FH’s work in relief and development is grounded in a document we recently published called God’s Story. God’s Story synthesizes the work of theologians and development practitioners and claims that all poverty, brokenness, and sorrow is contrary to God’s original intent. His plan is for the whole world to be beautiful and good.

Because God loves his creation, his big plan for history is progress out of suffering, poverty, injustice, violence, and death into a future Kingdom that is characterized by “Shalom,” an all-encompassing state of peace, joy, and flourishing.

From the God’s Story perspective, ending poverty is about a lot more than increasing consumption. Other measures, like the multidimensional poverty index, consider more elements in poverty, like education, health, and life expectancy. According to the multidimensional poverty index, 1.6 billion people are still in poverty. That’s a wildly different number than reported by the World Bank. The multidimensional poverty index isn’t perfect. But it does suggest that there is more to ending poverty than simply increasing levels of consumption and leisure.

What Is Flourishing?

The flourishing life that God desires for all people involves factors like good nutrition. But that is in addition to other elements. Like families living in harmony. Children growing up to use their talents. Parents taking care of their babies. Most importantly, a flourishing life requires hope. FH believes that hope comes from a change in worldview and connection to Creator God. That is why work in technical fields like health and livelihoods and education will only be truly transformative if we also pray “Thy Kingdom Come,” that God’s vision for Shalom may reign over the earth.

That is why FH considers a host of factors that impact the people we walk alongside. We may be encouraged by reports saying that development is effectively lifting people out of poverty. But we continue working with as much determination as ever.

Because poverty isn’t over until all people on this earth are flourishing in every dimension of life.

Want to Learn More About God’s Story? 

The FH eBook God’s Story describes the coming Kingdom in more depth. For almost half a century, FH has been shaped by theology, missiology (that’s practical theology concerning missions), development theory, and other schools of thought that have informed its approach to transformational poverty alleviation. God’s Story puts these pieces together to summarize the beliefs that form FH’s mandate for the child-focused community transformation (CFCT) approach to graduate communities from extreme poverty.