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July 23, 2013

HICKS: ‘Real poverty’ is beating a retreat globally thanks to freedoms

INDIANAPOLIS — Over the past 30 years, the number of people in the world living in “real poverty” has dropped from just less than 2 billion to fewer than 1.1 billion. This is a drop from roughly 40 percent to 15 percent of the world’s population.

I use the term “real poverty” to distinguish the condition of the lives of these people from that of those in poverty in America.

In the United States, we define an individual as impoverished when his or her income falls to about $29 a day, but many consume twice that much through government support. In contrast, the 1.1 billion souls in real poverty subsist on only $1.50 a day, and many on less than a dollar.

There is “poverty” and there is “real poverty,” and making the distinction is a moral imperative.

Unless you have traveled deeply in the Third World and have seen it with your own eyes, real poverty is difficult to comprehend. Imagine a place where a child dies for want of a dollar’s worth of medicine, lepers beg on the street, and the dead go unburied at the roadside. Ending this would be a triumph of the ages.

There is good news. If current trends continue, the end of real poverty could come in the next two decades. This means that in one promised lifetime of threescore and 10, we could see real poverty drop from half of all the world population to zero.

This is a blessed thing, for which we should rejoice. We should also ask how it happened.

First, it should be clear there never was too little food. The idea that consumption by the rich leads to world hunger is an idea a bit too juvenile for most 6-year-olds who are avoiding their peas.

The reason real poverty has been in hurried retreat is the advance of freedom. The freedom to trade, to choose one’s occupation and make a life for oneself has always been the best remedy against poverty (real or otherwise). The diminishing share of the world’s population ruled by tyrants is a near-perfect correlate of real poverty; where real poverty remains, tyranny looms close overhead.

For we denizens of the First World, this is unambiguous good news, for there is no greater economic truth than that growth in one region leads to growth in others. The hope of a future makes fertile the growth of democracy, civil liberties and peace.

So on this matter at least, it is helpful for us to put aside our relatively minor First World problems, and to give thanks for a better world.

— Michael Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University.

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