Read: A moral case for giving people money
The divisions between the World Bank’s economists and the UN’s special rapporteur are in some sense technical, about where to set the poverty line. They are in a more important sense interpretive, about whether progress has been fast or slow, and whether today’s global poverty counts are laudable or tragic.
This is a realm of yes-ands and no-buts, not direct refutations. Extreme poverty has declined rapidly, but the extreme-poverty line is very low: A person living below it spends no more than $1.90 a day, enough in many poor countries to cover some starch, a few fruits and vegetables, some cooking oil, a bit of protein, and that’s about it—with nothing left over for utilities, education, health care, transportation, or investment in wealth-generating assets, such as a cow or a motorbike. That poverty threshold represents “a staggeringly low standard of living, well below any reasonable conception of a life with dignity,” Alston argues—it is a catastrophic-destitution measure, not a poverty measure. He emphasizes the lack of progress made at the $3.20-a-day and $5.50-a-day poverty lines, too. Half the world lives on less than the latter figure.
Alston takes issue with the fact that the World Bank’s extreme-poverty line is an absolute measure, not a relative one: It sets a line and sees how many people cross it, country by country, rather than pegging the poverty threshold to median income, country by country. But “relative poverty is what really counts these days,” Alston told me, as it captures social exclusion, and the way that living on a few dollars a day is more challenging in middle-income countries like India and Kenya than in low-income countries like Afghanistan and Chad. “In a poorer country,” the bank itself explains, “participating in the job market may require only clothing and food, whereas someone in a richer society may also need access to the internet, transportation, and a cell phone.”
The bank also acknowledges that the global extreme-poverty line is low. It has generated a measure that includes relative poverty, and produces counts at the $3.20-a-day and $5.50-a-day lines. Its economists, researchers, and program experts stress that rising above the extreme-poverty line is no guarantee against malnutrition, stunted growth, early death, or any of the other horrible consequences of destitution.
But Alston’s most controversial, and most important, argument is that the focus on progress measured against the $1.90-a-day line—the prevalence of “everything’s getting better” arguments, made by Davos types like Bill Gates and Steven Pinker—has hampered progress toward true poverty eradication, and toward civil rights, social inclusion, and a basic standard of living for all. “By being able to rely so heavily on the World Bank's flagship figure, they can say, ‘Look, progress has been consistent. We’ve been doing great,’” Alston told me. “The implication of that is that the triumph of neoliberalism has brought with it very significant benefits for poor people. In reality, that’s just not the case.”