[Paleopsych] Reason: Bailey: The Poor May Not Be Getting Richer
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Mon Mar 28 22:43:19 UTC 2005
The Poor May Not Be Getting Richer
March 9, 2005
But they are living longer, eating better, and learning to read
Wealthier is healthier--and more educated, more equal for women, more
electrified, automotive, and computer-literate.
So the conventional wisdom in development economics has long been that
to boost the prospects of the world's poor, one needs to boost their
incomes. This is still true, but as World Bank economist Charles Kenny
points out in a provocative article titled "Why Are We Worried
About Income? Nearly Everything that Matters is Converging," income
growth does not tell the full story.
Even though some of the world's poorest people are not earning much
more than they were two generations ago, they're still living much
better than they were. In fact, many quality of life indicators are
converging toward levels found in the richer countries.
To illustrate this point, Kenny compares what has happened to life
expectancy in Britain and India. The average age span in both
countries was 24 years in the 14th century, but Britain then began a
gradual rise, and by 1931 its life expectancy was 60.8 years, compared
to just 26.8 for its colony. Since then, though, the numbers have
begun to converge--by 1999, Indians lived on average to 63, while
Brits nudged upward to 77.
One of the main reasons for the gap-closing is the fall of infant
mortality. In 1900 Britain, the infant survival rate was 846 per 1,000
births, compared to 655 in India. Today, 992 British infants out of
every 1,000 survive, compared to 920 Indians.
Kenny notes that increasing life expectancy correlates with greater
caloric intake. "Worldwide, the proportion of the world's population
living in countries where per capita food supplies are under 2,200
[calories per day] was 56 percent in the mid-1960s, compared to below
10 percent by the 1990s," Kenny notes. And although he doesn't mention
it, one reason is that buying food is a whole lot cheaper than it used
to be--the real prices for corn, wheat, and rice have decreased by
more than 70 percent since 1900.
Other social indicators, such as literacy rates, are also converging.
In 1913, only 9 percent of Indians could read, compared to 96 percent
of Britons. Today, 57 percent of Indians and 100 percent of people in
the UK are literate. According to Kenny, between 1950 and 1999, global
literacy increased from 52 percent to 81 percent of the world. And
women have made up much of the gap: Female literacy as a percentage of
male literacy has increased from 59 percent in 1970 to 80 percent in
Kenny also observes that what he calls "non-necessary consumption" has
been increasing for the world poorest, too. For example, while the
bottom 20 percent and the top 20 percent of the world's population
both increased their beer drinking between 1950 and 1990, the bottom
quintile's consumption grew five times as fast.
Incomes in the world's poorest countries have been rising slightly
over the past 50 years, so perhaps these large improvements
demonstrate that small changes in earning power at the lower income
levels have dramatic effects? Surely that's been part of the story,
but Kenny points out that incomes have been falling since 1950 in
several basket-case countries like Cuba, Angola, Nicaragua,
Mozambique, and Bolivia, yet life expectancy, literacy rates and the
percentage of kids in primary school have still gone up.
So why is the quality of life for the world's poorest people
improving, and in fact converging toward levels found in the richer
countries? Because improvements become cheaper over time. Kenny notes:
"Broadly, the results suggest that it takes one-tenth the income to
achieve the same life expectancy in 1999 as it took in 1870.
Consider the virtuous circle of agricultural improvements, such as the
way discovering how to properly use inorganic fertilizers boosted
agricultural production, which increased the calories available to
families, which in turn meant they didn't need their kids to work the
fields full time, thus permitting them to go to school to become
literate, which enabled them to more effectively adopt even better
farming techniques, and so forth. Literacy makes educating people
about the germ theory of disease a lot easier. Once-expensive
medicines like penicillin eventually cost only pennies per pill.
Although building infrastructure remains relatively expensive,
technology can leapfrog entire costly steps, as has been demonstrated
by the lightning-fast growth of cellular-telephone adoption from zero
to 1.5 billion people.
The world's poor have clearly benefited enormously from spillover
knowledge and technologies devised in the rich capitalist countries.
But they would be a whole lot better off if their incomes increased,
too. For that to happen, institutions like private property and the
rule of law must be adopted. Poor countries remain poor largely
because the incompetent despots who rule over them keep them that way.
Poverty was once humanity's natural state, but today it is almost
always man-made. -------------------------------------
Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation
Biology: The Moral and Scientific Defense of the Biotech Revolution,
Or Why You Should Relax and Enjoy the Brave New World will be
published in June by Prometheus Books.
24. mailto:rbailey at reason.com
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