Policymakers around the world have used Gross Domestic Product as the main gauge of economic performance – and have often adopted policies that aim to maximise its rate of growth. Generation after generation of economists have committed significant time and effort to thinking about the factors that influence GDP growth, on the premise that an expanding and healthy economy is one that sees its GDP increasing every year at a sufficient rate.
But is economic output a good enough indicator of national economic wellbeing? Costanza et al (2014) (see link below) argue that, despite its merits, GDP can be a ‘misleading measure of national success’:
GDP measures mainly market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. If a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue — even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility. That is hardly smart or sustainable (think Enron). Yet since the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country. Meanwhile, researchers have become much better at measuring what actually does make life worthwhile. The environmental and social effects of GDP growth is a misleading measure of national success. Countries should act now to embrace new metrics.
The limitations of GDP growth as a measure of economic wellbeing and national strength are becoming increasingly clear in today’s world. Some of the world’s wealthiest countries are plagued by discontent, with a growth in populism and social discontent – attitudes which are often fuelled by high rates of poverty and economic hardship. In a recent report titled ‘The Living Standards Audit 2018’ published by the Resolution Foundation, a UK economic thinktank (see link below), the authors found that child poverty rose in 2016–17 as a result of declining incomes of the poorest third of UK households:
While the economic profile of UK households has changed, living standards – with the exception of pensioner households – have mostly stagnated since the mid-2000s. Typical household incomes are not much higher than they were in 2003–04. This stagnation in living standards for many has brought with it a rise in poverty rates for low to middle income families. Over a third of low to middle income families with children are in poverty, up from a quarter in the mid-2000s, and nearly two-fifths say that they can’t afford a holiday away for their children once a year. On the other hand, the share of non-working families in poverty has fallen, though not by enough to prevent an overall rise in poverty since 2010.
Their projections also show that this rise in poverty was likely to have continued in 2017–18:
Although the increase in broad measures of inequality were relatively muted last year, our nowcast suggests that there was a pronounced rise in poverty (measured after housing costs[…]. The increase in overall poverty (from 22.1 to 23.2 per cent) was the largest since 1988. But this was dwarfed by the increase in child poverty, which rose from 30.3 per cent to 33.4 per cent. […]The fortunes of middle-income households diverged from those towards the bottom of the distribution and so a greater share of households, and children, found themselves below the poverty threshold.
A simple literature search on Scope (or even Google Scholar) shows that there has been a significant increase in the number of journal articles and reports in the last 10 years on this topic. We do talk more about the limitations of GDP, but we are still using it as the main measure of national economic performance.
Is it then time to stop focusing our attention on GDP growth exclusively and start considering broader metrics of social development? And what would such metrics look like? Both interesting questions that we will try to address in coming blogs.
- What are the main strengths and weakness of using GDP as measure of economic performance?
- Is high GDP growth alone enough to foster economic and social wellbeing? Explain your answer using examples.
- Write a list of alternative measures that could be used alongside GDP-based metrics to measure economic and social progress. Explain your answer.
Some commentators have seen the victory of Donald Trump and, prior to that, the Brexit vote as symptoms of a crisis in capitalism. Much of the campaigning in the US election, both by Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left focused on the plight of the poor. Whether the blame was put on immigration, big government, international organisations, the banks, cheap imports undercutting jobs or a lack of social protection, the message was clear: capitalism is failing to improve the lot of the majority. A small elite is getting significantly richer while the majority sees little or no gain in their living standards and a rise in uncertainty.
The articles below look at this crisis. They examine the causes, which they agree go back many years as capitalism has evolved. The financial crash of 2008 and the slow recovery since are symptomatic of the underlying changes in capitalism.
The Friedman article focuses on the slowing growth in technological advance and the problem of aging populations. What technological progress there is is not raising incomes generally, but is benefiting a few entrepreneurs and financiers. General rises in income may eventually come, but it may take decades before robotics, biotechnological advances, e-commerce and other breakthrough technologies filter through to higher incomes for everyone. In the meantime, increased competition through globalisation is depressing the incomes of the poor and economically immobile.
All the articles look at the rise of the rich. The difference with the past is that the people who are gaining the most are not doing so from production but from financial dealing or rental income; they have gained while the real economy has stagnated.
The gains to the rich have come from the rise in the value of assets, such as equities (shares) and property, and from the growth in rental incomes. Only a small fraction of finance is used to fund business investment; the majority is used for lending against existing assets, which then inflates their prices and makes their owners richer. In other words, the capitalist system is moving from driving growth in production to driving the inflation of asset prices and rental incomes.
The process whereby financial markets grow and in turn drive up asset prices is known as ‘financialisation’. Not only is the process moving away from funding productive investment and towards speculative activity, it is leading to a growth in ‘short-termism’. The rewards of senior managers often depend on the price of their companies’ shares. This leads to a focus on short-term profit and a neglect of long-term growth and profitability – to a neglect of investment in R&D and physical capital.
The process of financialisation has been driven by deregulation, financial innovation, the growth in international financial flows and, more recently, by quantitative easing and low interest rates. It has led to a growth in private debt which, in turn, creates more financial instability. The finance industry has become so profitable that even manufacturing companies are moving into the business of finance themselves – often finding it more profitable than their core business. As the Foroohar article states, “the biggest unexplored reason for long-term slower growth is that the financial system has stopped serving the real economy and now serves mainly itself.”
So will the election of Donald Trump, and pressure from populism in other countries too, mean that governments will focus more on production, job creation and poverty reduction? Will there be a movement towards fiscal policy to drive infrastructure spending? Will there be a reining in of loose monetary policy and easy credit?
Or will addressing the problem of financialisation and the crisis of capitalism result in the rich continuing to get richer at the expense of the poor, but this time through more conventional channels, such as increased production and monopoly profits and tax cuts for the rich? Trump supporters from among the poor hope the answer is no. Those who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries think the answer will be yes and that the solution to over financialisation requires more, not less, regulation, a rise in minimum wages and fiscal policies aimed specifically at the poor.
Can Global Capitalism Be Saved? Project Syndicate, Alexander Friedman (11/11/16)
American Capitalism’s Great Crisis Time, Rana Foroohar (12/5/16)
The Corruption of Capitalism by Guy Standing review – work matters less than what you own The Guardian, Katrina Forrester (26/10/16)
- Do you agree that capitalism is in crisis? Explain.
- What is meant by financialisation? Why has it grown?
- Will the policies espoused by Donald Trump help to address the problems caused by financialisation?
- What alternative policies are there to those of Trump for addressing the crisis of capitalism?
- Explain Schumpeter’s analysis of creative destruction.
- What technological innovations that are currently taking place could eventually benefit the poor as well as the rich?
- What disincentives are there for companies investing in R&D and new equipment?
- What are the arguments for and against a substantial rise in the minimum wage?
In this post we focus on three aspects of poverty around the world. The first is the definition of poverty. Is it an absolute or a relative concept? Does its definition change as the world develops. The second is the extent of poverty. Is the problem getting worse as inequality deepens, or are the numbers (absolutely or proportionately) getting smaller despite increased inequality? The third is policy to tackle the problem. What can be done and is being done? What answers are being given by policymakers in different parts of the world?
As far as the measurement of poverty is concerned, the simplest distinction is between absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty could be measured as income below a certain real level deemed necessary to achieve a particular standard of living. This could be specified in terms of sufficient income to have adequate food, shelter, clothing and leisure time, and adequate access to healthcare, clean water, sanitation, education, etc. An obvious problem here is what is considered ‘adequate’, as this is partly culturally determined and will also depend on physical and geographical features, such as climate.
The World Bank defines extreme absolute poverty as living on under $1.90 per day in purchasing-power parity terms. However, even after adjusting for purchasing power, what is considered the poverty threshold differs enormously from country to country. As the Wikipedia entry states:
Each nation has its own threshold for absolute poverty line; in the United States, for example, the absolute poverty line was US$15.15 per day in 2010 (US$22,000 per year for a family of four), while in India it was US$1.0 per day and in China the absolute poverty line was US$0.55 per day, each on PPP basis in 2010.
Relative poverty is normally taken to mean when a person’s income falls below a certain percentage of the mean or median. Thus in richer countries, for a given percentage, the poverty threshold would be at a higher absolute income. In the EU, people in relative poverty are defined as those with disposable income (after monetary benefits) less than 60% of the median.
Both approaches focus on consumption. Other approaches include social and cultural exclusion as dimensions of poverty.
What is clear is that poverty has a number of definitions. One problem with this is that politicians can focus on whatever definition suits them. Thus in the UK, with relatively high levels of employment, but often at low wages and only part-time employment, the Conservative government has redefined poverty as where no-one in a family is in work. Yet many working families have very low levels of income, considerably below 60% of the median.
The second aspect of poverty is its extent and whether it is growing. According to the United Nations, globally ‘extreme poverty rates have been cut by more than half since 1990. While this is a remarkable achievement, one in five people in developing regions still live on less than $1.25 a day, and there are millions more who make little more than this daily amount, plus many people risk slipping back into poverty.’
Despite this progress, in many countries extreme poverty is increasing. And in others, although the number in extreme poverty may be declining, it is still high and inequality is increasing so that more people are living only just above the extreme poverty line. The articles look at dimensions of poverty in different countries.
For example, the first The Conversation article argues that the financial crisis of 2008–09 led to a substantial increase in poverty across the European continent.
The impoverishment of Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal has been so severe that these southern European countries, taken together, had higher levels of poverty and deprivation than many of the former Communist nations that joined the European Union in 2004.
The third aspect is how to tackle the problem of poverty. There are three broad policy approaches.
The first is the use of cash transfers, such as unemployment benefits. The second is providing free or subsidised goods and services, such as healthcare or education. The ability of a country to support the poor in either of these ways depends on its tax base. Also, clearly, it depends on its priorities. There is also the issue of incentives. Do benefits encourage or discourage the recipients from seeking work? This depends on the design of the system. For example, if childcare is subsidised, this may both aid poor parents and also encourage parents responsible for looking after young children to seek work.
The third is to attempt to improve the earning power of the poor. This may in part be by the second approach of improving education, training and health. But it may also involve removing restrictions to employment, say by making various forms of discrimination illegal. It may also involve increasing land rights. In many developing countries land is very unequally distributed; redistribution to the poor can make a substantial contribution to relieving poverty. Another approach is to encourage agencies which supply microfinance for poor people wishing to set up their own small business.
The articles below look at a number of dimensions of poverty: its measurement, its extent and its alleviation. They look at the problem from the perspective of different countries. It is interesting to see to what extent the problems and solutions they identify are country-specific or general.
Extreme poverty affects 1 in 8 globally Buenos Aires Herald (20/7/16)
How poverty has radically shifted across Europe in the last decade The Conversation, Rod Hick (20/7/16)
The economics of poverty The Tribune of India, S Subramanian (22/7/16)
Poverty Chains and Global Capitalism. Towards a Global Process of Impoverishment Global Research (Canada), Benjamin Selwyn (20/7/16)
Asia’s cost of prosperity The Nation, Karl Wilson (24/7/16)
Private rental sector is the ‘new home of poverty’ in the UK The Guardian, Brian Robson (20/7/16)
Challenges in maintaining progress against global poverty Vox, Martin Ravallion (23/12/15)
California, sixth largest economy in the world, has highest poverty rate in US wsws.org, Marc Wells (22/7/16)
How gross inequality and crushed hopes have fed the rise of Donald Trump The Conversation, Nick Fischer (21/7/16)
Sustainable Development Goals – Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere United Nations
Children of the Recession: Innocenti Report Card 12 UNICEF, Gonzalo Fanjul (September 2014)
Listings on Poverty Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Poverty The World Bank
Hunger and World Poverty Poverty.com
- Distinguish between absolute and relative poverty. Give examples of specific measures of each and the extent to which they capture the complex nature of the problem.
- Discuss the appropriateness of the seven measures of poverty used in the first The Conversation article.
- How did the financial crisis affect the proportion of people living in poverty? Explain.
- What is the relationship between poverty and inequality? Does a more unequal society imply that there will be a greater proportion of people living in poverty?
- How has international poverty changed in recent years? What explanations can you give?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of using income per head as a measure of poverty, whether absolute or relative?
- Why is poverty so high in (a) the USA as a whole; (b) California specifically?
- How does globalisation affect poverty?
- Are adverse environmental consequences an inevitable result of reducing poverty in developing countries?
- Is freer trade likely to increase or decrease poverty? Explain
According to a an article in The Guardian, The best news in the world, by the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, there has been a dramatic fall in global poverty over the past two decades. The number of people in extreme poverty is projected to fall this year to below 10% of global population for the first time. This has been made possible, he claims, by unprecedented economic growth, especially in China.
But this raises three questions.
The first is whether, in the face of falling growth rates, progress in poverty reduction can be maintained.
The second is whether the World Bank is measuring extreme poverty in the right way. It is now defined as living on less than US$1.90 a day in 2011 prices – until a few weeks ago is was $1.25 in 2005 prices. As a result of this rebasing, global poverty falls from 14.5% of the world’s population (or 1011 million people) under the old method to 14.2% (or 987 million) under the new.
The third question is whether countries can improve their data collection so that a truer estimate of poverty can be made.
As far as the first question is concerned, Kim states that to stimulate growth, ‘every dollar of public spending should be scrutinised for impact. Every effort must be made to improve productivity.’ What is more, three things must happen:
||Economic growth must lift all people. It must be inclusive.
||Investment in human beings is crucial – especially investing in their health and education. Malnourished and poorly educated children will never reach their full potential and countries, in turn, will fall short of their economic and social aspirations.
||We must ensure that we can provide safety nets that prevent people from falling back into poverty because of poor health, economic shocks, or natural disasters.
As far as the second question is concerned, there are many who argue that $1.90 per day is far too low a measure of the extreme poverty threshold. It is a purchasing-power parity measure and is equivalent to what $1.90 would buy in the USA in 2011. But, according to the Jason Hickel article linked below, ‘the US Department of Agriculture calculates that in 2011 the very minimum necessary to buy sufficient food was $5.04 per day. And that’s not taking account of other requirements for survival, such as shelter and clothing.’ Peter Edward of Newcastle University, claims Hickell, ‘calculates that in order to achieve normal human life expectancy of just over 70 years, people need roughly 2.7 to 3.9 times the existing poverty line.’
But even if living on below $1.90 a day is defined as extreme poverty, it is important not to see the problem of poverty as having been solved for people who manage to achieve an income slightly above that level.
The third question is how to improve data. There is a paucity and unreliability of data in many developing countries. According to Kim:
Our report adds that data is sparse and inconsistent across the region and globally. Some 29 countries around the world had no poverty data from 2002 to 2011, so they could not track their progress. Another 28 had just one survey that collected poverty data during that time.
This is a situation that must change to improve the world’s ability to tackle poverty. In fact, we can’t accomplish our goal if we do not have enough information to know whether people are actually lifting themselves out of poverty. For that we need to address huge data gaps. We need robust data.
The best news in the world: we have made real progress towards ending extreme poverty The Guardian, Jim Yong Kim (3/11/15)
Could you live on $1.90 a day? That’s the international poverty line The Guardian, Jason Hickel (1/11/15)
Making international trade work for the world’s poorest The Guardian, Jim Yong Kim and Roberto Azevêdo (30/6/15)
Global Poverty Will Hit New Low This Year, World Bank Says Huffington Post, Lydia O’Connor (23/10/15)
The international poverty line has just been raised to $1.90 a day, but global poverty is basically unchanged. How is that even possible? World Bank blogs, Francisco Ferreira, Dean Mitchell Jolliffe and Espen Beer Prydz (4/10/2015)
Why Didn’t the World Bank Make Reducing Inequality One of Its Goals? World Bank blogs, Jaime Saavedra-Chanduvi (23/9/13)
$1.90 Per Day: What Does it Say? Institute for New Economic Thinking, Rahul Lahoti and Sanjay Reddy (6/10/15)
Reports and papers
The Role of Trade in Ending Poverty WTO and World Bank (2015)
Poverty in a Rising Africa World Bank (1/10/15)
Ending extreme poverty and sharing prosperity: progress and policies World Bank, Marcio Cruz, James Foster, Bryce Quillin and Philip Schellekens (October 2015)
- Explain how the World Bank calculates the extreme poverty line.
- Why, if the line has risen from $1.25 per day to $1.90 per day, has the number of people recorded as being in extreme poverty fallen as a result?
- Why has the number of people in extreme poverty been rising over the years and yet the percentage of people in extreme poverty been falling?
- What policies can be adopted to tackle poverty? Discuss their practicality?
- Are reduced poverty and increased economic growth consistent policy goals? (See the blog post Inequality and economic growth.)
- What are the inadequacies of using income per day (albeit in ppp terms) as a measure of the degree of poverty? What other indicators of poverty could be used and how suitable would they be?
- How could international trade be made to work for the world’s poorest?
In a recent post, we looked at the rising number of people being paid less than the (voluntary) living wage. The Living Wage Foundation has just published the latest annual update to the living wage. This brings it to £9.40 per hour in London and £8.25 outside London – well above the statutory National Minimum Wage of £6.70 for those aged 21 and over. Even when employers are required to pay at least the so-called National Living Wage (NLW) of £7.20 per hour from April 2016 to those aged 25 and over, the NLW will still be well below the living wage.
Read the earlier post and then answer the questions in the light of the new living wage rates and the new linked articles.
Living wage rate increased by 40p an hour BBC News (2/11/15)
London ‘living wage’ rises to £9.40 an hour Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (2/11/15)
Living Wage now £8.25 across the UK and £9.40 in London Independent, Jon Stone (2/11/15)
Special report: The Living Wage and its impact on workers and businesses Manchester Evening News, Adam Jupp (2/11/15)
Living Wage: Number Of Employers Paying It Doubles In A Year, While Six Million Workers Still Go Without Huffington Post, Jack Sommers (2/11/15)
Living wage rate increases announced as campaigners call for more businesses to go beyond legal minimums Living Wage Foundation (30/10/15)
Data and Reports
Estimates of employee jobs paid less than the living wage in London and other parts of the UK ONS (12/10/15)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings ONS
Living wage rates: the calculation Living Wage Foundation
National Minimum Wage rates GOV.UK
- By referring to the Living Wage Foundation site, explain how the living wage is calculated. If you were defining the living wage, would you define it in this way? Explain.
- Distinguish between low pay and poverty. Does pay give a good indication of poverty?
- For what reasons has the number of jobs paying below the living wage increased? Does marginal productivty theory provide an explanation?
- Is it best to base statutory minimum wages on median earnings, mean earnings or the cost of living? Explain.
- If more 6 million jobs pay below the living wage, does this mean that 6 million people, more than 6 million people or fewer than 6 million people receive average hourly wages below the living wage? Explain.
- For what reasons might firms volunteer to pay the living wage to their employees? Is doing so consistent with the aim of profit maximisation?
- Why are more women than men paid wage rates below the living wage?
- Why does the proportion of people being paid the living wage vary from one part of the UK to another? Is this likely to be purely a reflection of differences in the cost of living?