If the World Is Getting Richer, Why Do So Many People Feel Poor?

On almost any metric—quality of living, lifespan, health, education, income, basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter—life around the world is improving.


In a widely-read statement in his annual foundation letter, Bill Gates took an unabashedly optimistic approach to the world this week. Not only did he tout the massive material progress evident everywhere in the world over the past decades, but he also predicted that as more countries accelerate their transformation from rural poverty to urban middle class societies, poverty as we know it will disappear within the next two decades. “By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world,” Gates wrote. “Almost all countries will be what we now call lower-middle income or richer.”

With an economy of words, Gates makes clear that he understands the issues. Yes, worldwide there is still immense poverty as defined by critically low incomes or GDP per capita, including less than $500 a year in Ethiopia, less than that in the vast and dysfunctional Democratic Republic of Congo, even less in Burundi and who knows what in North Korea. All of those countries, Gates predicts, will be substantially wealthier in twenty years.

This message is in rather stark contrast to the sense in the United States and Europe that we are mired in economic stagnation, and that as inequality grows, more people are unable to meet their basic needs. That message is likely to be a cornerstone of President Obama’s State of the Unionaddress, and it suggests that life is not getting better for many Americans, but rather worse.

So which view more accurately describes the world we live in? While it does depend on what you consider progress, it should be hard to disagree with Gates and the evidence he presents. Yet today, many people do. They believe that their quality of life is deteriorating, and they look around and see the world through that lens.

In purely dollar terms, it is true that the vast middle class in America (and Western Europe) have seen their incomes stagnate. As is frequently noted, middle-class incomes in the United States have barely budged since the 1980s. Income data, however, has some substantial limitations. While it is used to determine official poverty rates, it says nothing about the relative cost of living. As many goods and essentials have become dramatically less expensive, stagnant incomes allow for higher living standards.

In 1950, for instance, the average American family spent almost 30 percent of its income on food. Now it spends barely more than 10 percent. Apparel costs have also dramatically decreased. Add in the free goods of the Internet — ranging from Google, to GPS data that helps you avoid traffic, to shopping online and saving travel costs — and you have a rather different picture of the net effect of stagnant incomes.

Then there is what used to be called the developing world. Gates notes that the only region of the world where there is still chronic poverty en masse is sub-Saharan Africa. That is probably overstating the case, given that India alone has at least 100 million people living in slums without clean water or basic services. Yet over the past decade, more than that number has been able to move out of slums and into legitimate dwellings. Cup half empty, or half full?

Or take a different measure: nutrition. According to the World Health Organization, every part of the world has seen a steady rise in calorie consumption over the past fifty years. Industrialized nations will see an increase from 3065 calories per person per day in the mid-1970s to an estimated (and perhaps excessive) 3440 by 2015. Developing nations will go from 2152 to 2850 in the same time. Only sub-Saharan Africa lags notably, and should increase its consumption from 2079 to 2360 calories during these four decades. East Asia, which was calorically poorer than Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1950s, now consumes over 3000 calories a day per person.

On almost any metric — quality of living, lifespan, health, education, income, basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter — life everywhere has improved. That point is being forcefully made by Gates, as it has by others such as Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X Prize for innovation. Yet, the prevailing sense in the West at least is that things are either getting worse or at best not getting better.

Given the evidence that globally, life is getting better, why do so many people feel like it’s getting worse? What Gates and others do not sufficiently address is that much of the modern world uses growth as the mark of progress. That means an expectation of more, more and more. It is also true that even in the most affluent societies, many people earn lower incomes and feel disconnected from the wealth and lifestyles of their peers.

Humans are wired to be acutely aware of how others near to them are faring, and we all mark ourselves in relative terms. It may be better to live in a trailer with satellite TV and an abundance of cheap, unhealthy food than to live in a shanty in Mumbai or a refugee camp in the Congo, but those groups do not live next to one another. They aren’t effective reference points for actual people. Most of us don’t relate to abstract populations elsewhere in the world. Even with humanitarian crises, we don’t take action because of stories we read, as much as pictures we see and testimony we hear.

In addition, residents of the more affluent parts of the world are aware that their ability to generate more has started to wane, save for a small minority of the very affluent. While many material goods are inexpensive, many needed services such as education and healthcare are only becoming more expensive, and account for a larger proportion of household spending than they did in previous generations. And those services are the keys to positive change. All of the flat screens in the world won’t make people feel that they are thriving if the quality of their medical care deteriorates.

In much of the world outside of Europe and the United States, of course, there is not that sense of malaise. Many societies are indeed exuding confidence — sometimes as in the case of the current government of Turkey, perhaps too much. Yes, countries such as Ethiopia and South Sudan and the Congo — or Venezuela in this hemisphere — offer little in the way of good governance or hope for the future, but those places are increasingly the exception.

What Gates has underscored is that the centuries-old struggle to end poverty and want is coming to an end. That does not mean everyone is happy or that a vast swath of the human race has what they consider to be enough. It does mean that as basic needs are met on a global scale, we will have to address a new suite of challenges ranging from how much more calories, clothing, square feet, years and income we need individually or collectively to thrive. Once most of the human race has secured the basics, it will not be the end of history. We will continue to ask questions of how to satisfy the next level of needs, what to strive for, how much is enough and does everyone indeed have enough. You can hear those questions beginning to form now in the developed world; you can be sure that they will be even louder in the years ahead.

This post originally appeared on Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.