A (Very) Short History of the Idea of Ending Poverty

Yves here. While the notion of ending poverty is recent in historical terms, this post, likely due to its brevity, skirts the issue of what it means to defeat poverty in the modern era. Housing? Shelter? Medical and dental care? We could organize to have those be broadly affordable but the process would look way too socialist for most people’s taste.

Also, I wonder if it is no accident the modern concern over addressing poverty starts with the Industrial Revolution. The end of belief in the Great Chain of Being and nobility as the basis for status and material comfort would lead at least some to question why they wound up where they wound up in the pecking order, and the more reflective might recognize that luck was a big part of the equation. Of course, various sects like Calvinists came up with more convenient answers.

By Martin Ravallion, Edmond D. Villani Chair of Economics, Georgetown University. Originally published at VoxEU

At times, ‘ending poverty’ may seem to be nothing more than a ‘symbolic’ goal, with little done to achieve the aim. This column provides a short history of the idea of ending poverty as a ‘motivational’ goal, from the intellectual germ of the modern idea of distributive justice in the late 18th century to the UN’s first Sustainable Development Goal of ending “extreme poverty” globally by 2030. It argues that the path to attaining SDG1 calls for some combination of economic growth, especially when fuelled by pro-poor technical progress, and pro-poor redistribution, but huge challenges lie ahead in how to manage the likely tradeoffs between the ‘social’ and ‘environmental’ SDGs.

There are times and places when announcing a goal for ending poverty is clearly little more than a symbol of good intentions. It tells poor citizens, and those who care about them, that the government (or international agency) purports to be on their side, even if nothing much is done to ease poverty. This can be called a ‘symbolic goal’.

At times there have also been more substantive aims. Advocates against poverty have variously seen it as: the most morally objectionable aspect of inequality, stemming mainly from economic and political forces rather than bad choices by poor people; a key material constraint on human freedom and social inclusion; a risk of deprivation, whether currently poor or not; and a cost to other valued goals, including economic efficiency, human development and environmental sustainability. The actions that might be motivated in response range from specific policies to efforts to help poor people organise collectively for things that matter to them. Thus, goal setting is seen as an incentive mechanism for attaining better outcomes. We can call this the ‘motivating goal’. For example, the United Nation’s first Sustainable Development Goal (SDG1) of ending “extreme poverty” globally by 2030 is clearly intended to be motivational (UNDP 2020).

In a new paper, I provide a short history of the idea of ending poverty as a motivational goal, and try to draw some lessons from that history (Ravallion 2020). I argue that ending poverty is a modern idea, little evident in pre-modern times. The balance of factors influencing the motivating goal changes with economic development and varies from one place to another. Politically, the perceived benefits depend on the weight given to poor people, which depends in turn on their voting power and their capacity to organise. The cost of ending poverty through redistribution depends (in part) on how much poverty there is, relative to the resources thought to be available. It can be no surprise that calls for ending poverty have been heard more often when a society’s total resources make it more feasible to do so. Hollander (1914: 18) put it nicely: “It is because the whole loaf is large enough to satisfy the hunger of all who must be fed that individual want is intolerable.”

History confirms the intuition that ‘ending poverty’ has little political traction as a near-term goal when mass chronic poverty is seen to be the norm and poor citizens have little political influence. When those conditions no longer hold, a political goal of ‘ending poverty’ can motivate public action to end poverty. Fleischacker (2004) argues that the late 18th century saw the intellectual germ of the modern idea of distributive justice. However, it did not get far in economics or policymaking until much more recently. Over the 19th century, poverty rates fell substantially in Western Europe and North America, and we started to see mainstream advocates of ending chronic poverty, and policies for doing so.

While the history of the idea of ending poverty confirms that political constraints matter, it also suggests that they are not deterministic. Social and economic thought, and data, have often played a role. One could not talk seriously about ending poverty until it was agreed that less poverty was a good thing, and here Smith (1776) was influential in overturning the prior mercantilist thinking that saw poverty as essential for wealth generation. Descriptions (both qualitative and quantitative) of the lives of poor people have also had much influence, often shaming the non-poor into supporting actions to help poor people. The effort to document poverty, especially those of the late 19th century, also fostered the development of modern empirical social science, including economics.

In the wake of high inequality and the critiques and rising influence of the socialist and labour movements, and the heightened public awareness of poverty, the period around the turn of early 20th century saw a concerted effort to reduce poverty and inequality in much of today’s rich world. This was echoed in economic thinking; the most famous economist of the time, Alfred Marshall (1890), was asking in 1890, “May we not outgrow the belief that poverty is necessary?” Fledgling welfare states started to emerge, alongside progressive income taxation and minimum wage laws in the early part of the 20th century. The poverty focus gained political momentum in the wake of the Great Depression. Famously, in America, President Roosevelt’s new social programs – bundled under the label of the New Deal – included the Social Security Act, which introduced federal pensions for the elderly, transfers for families with dependent children, and unemployment benefits.

There was new interest in the idea of ending poverty after the WWII, and an explosion of interest and effort from around 1960, with policy responses in many countries, including America, notable under the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty. The debates about poverty in America in the 1960s and 1970s both reflected past debates, but also anticipated issues that would be prominent going forward, especially about the relative importance of economic growth versus redistribution.

In the post-Colonial period, the newly independent states – what we came to call the ‘developing world’ – were keen to see an end to poverty. Some of this was clearly little more than symbolic goal setting. Progress was slow for most countries. An acceleration in progress against poverty emerged around the year 2000.

Prior to SDG1, the UN’s first Millennium Development Goal (MDG1) of halving the 1990 poverty rate by 2015 was achieved ahead of time. The fact that MDG1 was achieved has been taken by some observers to imply that it was hugely motivational, though some of the claims made for the power of MDG1 have clearly been exaggerated. One might equally well argue that MDG1 was not ambitious enough. More worryingly, however, is that halving the 1990 poverty rate was attained with only modest gains for the poorest (Ravallion 2016).

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals came to include ending extreme poverty by 2030. This is more ambitious than MDG1, and more politically challenging. SDG1 focuses attention on the poorest 10% globally, although it also highlights regional priorities; 40% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa still lives below that line. Importantly, SDG1 cannot be attained if the poorest are left behind, as we saw in the MDG1 period.

Attaining SDG1 will clearly not be the “end of poverty” (as the UN’s rousing labelling of the goal suggests). Many of those who are no longer poor by the global $1.90 standard will still be poor by the (defensible) standards of the country they live in (Ravallion and Chen 2019). Nonetheless, getting everyone above a global line that 10% do not currently reach, and 40% did not attain 40 years ago, would be an achievement.

The path to attaining SDG1 calls for some combination of economic growth, especially when fuelled by pro-poor technical progress, and pro-poor redistribution. The political context clearly matters to the relative importance of growth versus redistribution, but so does the level of economic development. When there is a lot of poverty – such that redistribution is politically and economically challenging, if not impossible – economic growth may be all that we can hope for as a politically feasible response. There have been cases of rising poverty with economic growth, but they are rare over the longer term. The Catch-22, however, is that poverty typically makes it harder to grow an economy.

History suggests that the dynamics of poverty reduction can sometimes work synergistically with the political economy to accelerate progress; the heavy lifting is done by growth, but then redistribution starts to take over. This virtuous cycle has been evident at times in the history, but it can come unstuck, especially when the poorest are harder to reach, and one can point to arguments and evidence as to why that might be so. It is undeniably good news that fewer people live near the floor to living standards, but it is sobering that the floor has not risen more.

SDG1 will probably not be attained with a return to ‘business as usual’ after the COVID-19 pandemic. Restoring economic growth in poor countries will almost certainly be required. There is scope for more effective redistributive policies, and even efficiency-promoting redistributions, though there are continuing challenges in assuring that these policies reach the poorest. There is also a more widespread recognition that the economic growth that has helped so much to reduce aggregate poverty measures has also come with environmental costs, including global warming. Huge challenges lie ahead in how to manage the likely tradeoffs between the ‘social’ and ‘environmental’ SDGs.

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  1. Count Zero

    I would think those experiencing poverty have ALWAYS thought that ending poverty was a really great idea. And probably not just for themselves but for their family, friends and neighbours — which might be as near to “everybody” as they could think.

  2. Anonymous

    Some call “The poor you will always have with you …” (Matthew 26:11) a statement on the inevitability of poverty,

    Actually though, it’s an indictment of disobedience since:

    “However, there will be no poor among you, since the Lord will surely bless you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, if only you listen obediently to the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all this commandment which I am commanding you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5).

    We’re not doing something right, that’s for sure, and economic sins are probably near, if not at, the top of the list.

    1. Samuel Conner

      The economic vision of that part of the OT looks quite “progressive” even by present-day standards:

      * widespread land ownership (–> low “unemployment”)
      * periodic debt cancellations and redistribution of land to landless descendants of landholders who had alienated their property
      * debtor protections (forbidding the taking of vital property as security)
      * forbidding of usury
      * obligatory periodic land fallowing

      Prof Hudson has written a lot about the wisdom of the ancients regarding debt. Sadly, our present economic system can’t live with it and can’t (as currently configured) live without it.

  3. Steven Kurtz

    There are assumptions in this which can be challenged.

    First is that *net* energy throughput in the global economy will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. Barring a fusion breakthrough, it is likely we are near (some say past) a net surplus energy situation. See surplusenergyeconomics DOT wordpress Dot com

    Second is the calculation by footprintnetwork DOT org that 170% of annual Earth ‘renewable’ energy-matter (incl potable water, healthy soils, fish stocks, etc) flow rates are being used yearly. Reserves are shrinking as rates rise, and non-renewables shrink faster each year.

    Third is that ‘wealth’ redistribution can enable real growth given the above two deficiencies and the addition of ~ 230,000 net additional humans daily seeking slices of the ‘ natural pie.’

    One must ignore Science to continue to believe that money can deliver material well being. The Central Banks seem to think that is the case, but they are in the process of finding out the hard way that you can’t eat money. Nor will it shelter or heal you.

  4. The Rev Kev

    US wages basically flat-lined in the 1970s so people nowadays are roughly earning what their grandfathers earned back then. But we know that productivity took off like a rocket since then when the look at GDP. And we also know that today’s generation has predatory costs such as education, medical, etc. which eats into what they do earn and pushing them into poverty. So what happened to all that wealth that has been generated since then? Why it has been captured by the elites and a professional managerial class that has enacted as their enablers. So you do wonder what the US would look like now if wages had kept pace with the US GDP since the 70s. A Jeff Bezos would have to offer living wages with medical benefits if he wanted to staff his warehouses and they would be subject to union-enforced health and safety standards which meant that he would only have become a billionaire at best. (sniff) The humanity.

    1. Upwithfiat

      The focus on wages is short-sighted given the inevitability of automation.

      Instead, the focus should have always been on ethical finance and ethical real asset ownership (i.e. land reform). Then we wouldn’t have gross wealth inequality and rent slavery.

      1. jsn

        Nothing is inevitable. It didn’t work out for Marx, statements of inevitability are inevitably wrong. So now, maybe you’re right.

        Automation, though has no agency, people and resources are required for it and resource constraints are beginning to impinge everywhere, except on the number of people so far.

  5. Jeremy Grimm

    Ending poverty could be a new mission for our military. We must declare a new War on Poverty. We have the weapons, the ammunition, the training, and the soldiers. All we need is the will. Our military allied with our police forces could end poverty as we know it. America could turn the wastelands of its inner cities and run down suburbs into parks and high rise luxury condos and renew our cities and suburbs. Our wealthy classes, our beautiful people, need more living space./s

    1. Samuel Conner

      Snark aside, it’s an intriguing thought what could be accomplished with a fraction of the $x10^11 annually expended on war preparations and war-making.

      A fond fantasy of mine is to turn the exurbs and suburbs into net food surplus gardens; turn the lawns into food forests, and export the surplus (federally subsidized, if need be) into the urban cores to improve food security and quality.

      One of the useful features, from the point of view of our elites, of the “budget constraint” fallacy is that it allows our rulers to pretend that there isn’t enough money to protect the population from both external threats and internal immiseration. In that sense, one might say that the US military is already an instrument (a passive one at least, thankfully) in a “war on the poor.”

      1. HotFlash

        Samuel, I akpplaud and share your fond fantasy. As a city-dweller I can see many opportunities for food growing here in high-density downtown as well. Prime candidates are rooftops both large and small, lawns (! what a waste of space!) and any space currently used for cars. I include streets and roads, parking spaces, whether large lots, street parking, or driveways. I would love to see the commuter multi-lane highways that currently bring suburbanites and ex-urbanites to downtown offices converted to bicycle expressways lined with containers of vegetables, with grain growing down the median. For the cost of restoring one double-super-basketweave exchange, as was done here recently, we could have kilometers of elevated and covered bike highways. People could live closer to where they work, and/or work closer to where they live, and much closer to where their food comes from.

        Another candidate for food production is our current recreational and public spaces. Parks, cemeteries, school lawns can become food forests and still keep their original function. My little park down the street would be an ideal place for a couple of mini-cows or some sheep . And they’d mow the grass. I’d love to keep some bees at my house but my neighbour and his daughter are violently allergic to bee stings, so it would be rude. I am asking around to see if a further-away neighbour might be interested in cohosting a hive.

        And golf courses! Did you know that a 9-hole golf course is 20 to 60 acres in size? That would grow or graze a fair bit. This guy does amazing things on what seems to be his balcony or maybe a paved back yard. I live in Canada, his climate appears to be milder (Viet Nam, not sure where), but do check out his whole channel. The videos are short and worth it for the cooking alone. This guy raises what appear to be retail quantities of produce in next to no space with minimal cash input.

        Food can be grown in wall gardens, roof gardens, boulevard gardens, container gardens, and, as the gentleman from Viet Nam shows, in recycled plastic containers.

  6. Carlos Stoll

    The author claims that poverty stems mainly from economic and political forces rather than bad choices by poor people. I think there is often a chicken-and-egg issue here, since poor people often make bad choices because they don’t know any better, which is the result of insufficient education, and they are insufficiently educated because their parents didn’t send them to school, perhaps because the children had to work instead of attending school, but sometimes because the parents didn’t appreciate the importance of a good education. Each of these factors can be solved or attenuated by government action, for instance by punishing parents whose children fail to attend school or making child labor unnecessary through subsidies to parents whose children do attend school. But if the government fails to enforce school attendance, as happens for example in Nicaragua, is that a “political force”? In 1979 when the Sandinistas took power, they started a nationwide literacy campaign, which indicates that they appreciated the importance of schooling. In that case, why didn’t they make school attendance mandatory? Was that omission a “political force”? Even children who do attend school in Nicaragua are remarkably ignorant. I once asked a dozen school-age children, one after the other, in what year Nicaragua became independent and the name of Nicaragua’s first president, and only one of them knew the answer to either question. Along with general ignorance come ineptitude, a lackadaisical attitude and unreliability. It is common knowledge that in Nicaragua employers must train their workers themselves. That’s far more than a “political force”, it’s the character of the country, which includes the nature of the government.

    1. Carla

      @Carlos Stoll — “since poor people often make bad choices because they don’t know any better, which is the result of insufficient education” — REALLY?

      Then why do wealthy, well-educated people so often make bad choices?

      Just because there are almost never CONSEQUENCES for privileged individuals making terrible, including criminal, choices DOES NOT MEAN THEY DO NOT MAKE THEM.

      I apologize for “shouting” but in this comment box, I don’t know how to indicate bolding or italics for emphasis. And I cannot over-emphasize, Mr. Stoll, how strongly I disagree with your premise.

      1. JBird4049

        There is also the reality that the consequences of being poor, however you and your family got there, reinforces the condition of poverty. Sufficient food, stable housing, dependable income, a sane neighborhood, good schools, competent government, un-corrupt and nonviolent policing, and living and working with successful people who are good examples are all conditions that help to create the thinking and habits needed for long term success. The lack of any of this helps to create poverty and dysfunction. It is hard to think about long term financial planning or success when you do not know where everyone is going to live next month or tomorrow.

        Being poor often means being forced into surviving-the-latest-disaster mode, not into a success mode. I think being a successful working class family means you will likely become middle class because everything, but the social connections which are underrated by most people, needed for upward mobility are there as well in the middle class. A working or middle class person often has the environment needed to either remain where they are or climb the class hierarchy whereas being poor means being ground into the dirt no matter how hard you work.

        This is why I find those lauding the Meritocracy that we supposed are living in or who scold the poor just for being poor repugnant.

      2. Carlos Stoll

        I provided an example: not sending their children to school. Is that a bad choice or isn’t it?

  7. Noone from Nowheresville

    I guess this article prompts these thoughts: So in regards to Europe where do the different waves of enclosing the commons come into play v. the power of the peasantry (temporary negotiated peace / gains followed by the backlash of the state) v. the monopoly power of exploitation of foreign lands / wealth to designate winners? What policies were put in place, where and when? After all things like the Irish Famine didn’t happen by accident.

    Now throw in a few wars, famines, plagues, new technologies, religious conversions, internal foreign land political factions and is it possible that we see glimmers of the modern philanthropic industrial complex? What role does propaganda play?

    So modern world: What do we re-distribute back vs. what did we distribute to ourselves via extraction? How much does extraction (e.g., resource, modernizing the country’s financial system, export based society, etc.) contribute toward the circumstances of global poverty? Are we defining via our own societal norms to justify the “global whole” of what we do or are we only acknowledging the philanthropic public pieces?

    When internal societal inequality is taken into account were the global poor better off being below the poverty line before our assistance or above the poverty after we assisted? Does the answer change if we ask the locals themselves?

    It’s all about growth growth GROWTH!!! The poor themselves have no agency in this piece.

  8. ObjectiveFunction

    Poverty, in the sense of precarity and the threat of indigence or homelessness no longer exists in Singapore, at least not among citizens, even though this entrepot and regional hub can be in no way called socialist. Modest taxes on the rents that the various resident banks, ports, refineries and R&D centres extract support a large educated middle class and services sector, and are more than enough to fund ample public housing, health, training, defence and infrastructure, administered by a capable and honest civil service.

    These public goods augment the diverse Asian family cultures to provide a stable if not lavish life and preserve social harmony, albeit at some cost in individual liberties. Families are intact; children live with their parents even after marriage.

    You see the occasional mumbler scavenging trash bins, or a drunk (who rapidly gets carted away), but you just don’t see street people or tramps, or encounter any crime much worse than bike theft or gambling, unless you do business with loansharks or get into drugs (for which one risks execution).

    The secret ingredient here though is the half million or so migrant workers (heavily South Asian labourers and Filipina domestics). Migrants on work permits (there are almost no illegal migrants) perform the fatiguing, low paid work that is typically closest to precarity in most societies, living in tiny storerooms or crowded dorms. While some minority are exploited and abused, most appear grateful to be working in SG and not elsewhere, can access basic services and remit most of their pay home. However, their physical presence gives them no right to remain if they stop working (or become pregnant), so their ‘precarity’ amounts to the threat of deportation. So effectively, poverty is exported.

    1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

      Not that hard to do when you’re an island 15 miles on a side that happens to also control the main shipping corridors, and does not operate 600 military bases in 90 countries. Want less poverty? Try buying less war.

  9. jef

    “…way too socialist for most people’s taste” We need to remind “most people” that it was socialism as in social democracy that “Makes America Great”. The only catch is we can’t allow anyone else around the world have it or else …well the outcome is too horrific to contemplate.

  10. Anonymous

    “…way too socialist for most people’s taste” Yves

    Upon reading the Old Testament, I discovered it commands roughly equal asset ownership with provisions in the Law (e.g. Deuteronomy 23:19-20, e.g. Leviticus 25) to keep it that way.

    Now the US is still largely a Judeo-Christian nation, so I see no reason to insist that (largely unpopular, as you admit) socialism is the only alternative to our current heretical (fascist) economic system.

  11. Susan the other

    I know it’s a cheap twist but I can’t help making it: “End poverty? – Why not end wealth?” Wealth is useless in a world saturated with money (aka “wealth”). Poverty curiously remains a pool of very low entropy. No? It “could now be determined” that trying to “end poverty” doesn’t work. Well… why not? Maybe one reason is that in the endeavor to end poverty we stimulate groaf (greed) which all (99%) goes to established wealth and defeats poverty from ever climbing out of its deprivation. But, standing back and looking at it all, wealth is just as miserable as poverty. Neither one of them are going anywhere. Until sovereign governments step up. That’s never been tried. Maybe a few scraps of redistribution. But that’s it.

  12. Carlos Stoll

    “the weight given to poor people, which depends in turn on their voting power and their capacity to organise.”
    Empirical studies of the US have shown that politicians don’t care how poor people vote. Government policy is designed to favor people who have contributed to the victorious politicians’ electoral campaigns. Which segments of the population vote for them doesn’t count. See Unequal Democracy, by Larry Bartels
    Furthermore it doesn’t even matter much which candidate wins, since they all pursue neoliberal policies.

  13. John Anderson

    Jesus: No one can serve two masters. Either love the money or love the God.
    Just about all of the above comments talk about changing the poor. Wrong! It’s the guys who have the money that need to change in this crazy world.

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