Balancing the Weights of Poverty and Population

The 21st century began on an inspiring note: The United Nations set a goal of reducing the share of the world’s population living in extreme poverty by half by 2015. By early 2007 the world looked to be on track to meet this goal, but as the economic crisis unfolds and the outlook darkens, the world will have to intensify its poverty reduction effort.

Among countries, China is the big success story in reducing poverty. The number of Chinese living in extreme poverty dropped from 685 million in 1990 to 213 million in 2007. With little growth in its population, the share of people living in poverty in China dropped from 60 percent to 16 percent, an amazing achievement by any standard.

India’s progress is mixed. Between 1990 and 2007, the number of Indians living in poverty actually increased slightly from 466 million to 489 million while the share living in poverty dropped from 51 percent to 42 percent. Despite its economic growth, averaging 9 percent a year for the last four years, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s support of a grassroots effort to eradicate poverty, India still has a long way to go.

Brazil, on the other hand, has succeeded in reducing poverty with its Bolsa Familia program, an effort strongly supported by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. This is a conditional assistance program that offers poor mothers up to $35 a month if they keep their children in school, have them vaccinated, and make sure they get regular physical checkups. Between 1990 and 2007, the share of the population living in extreme poverty dropped from 15 to 5 percent. Serving 11 million families, nearly one fourth of the country’s population, it has in the last five years raised incomes among the poor by 22 percent. By comparison, incomes among the rich rose by only 5 percent. Rosani Cunha, the program’s former director, observed, "There are very few countries that reduce inequality and poverty at the same time."

Several countries in Southeast Asia have made impressive gains as well, including Thailand, Viet Nam, and Indonesia. These gains in Asia seemed to ensure that the U.N. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving poverty by 2015 would be reached. Indeed, in a 2008 assessment of progress in reaching the MDGs, the World Bank reported that all regions of the developing world with the notable exception of sub-Saharan Africa were on track to cut the proportion of people living in extreme poverty in half by 2015.

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