How many people still live in poverty?

When the Millennium Development Goals reached their formal conclusion in 2015, there was a full review of the goals and whether or not they were achieved. Goal 1.A was one of the success stories. Not only did the world halve the number of people living on less $1.25 a day, it did so five years ahead of the deadline. That’s great of course, but it doesn’t mean the end of poverty.

If I was living on £1 a day, and my circumstances improved ever so slightly and I got an extra 10p a day, I wouldn’t consider my problems solved. I’d have a few things to say to anyone suggesting I had been ‘lifted out of poverty’.

There are still 800 million people living on less than $1.25 a day, which is appalling. But that’s an extremely low and mostly arbitrary line. Move the benchmark to a more realistic measure of poverty, and it gets worse – at $2.5o a day we’re talking about 2.7 billion people. Add a dollar more and we’re approaching half the world’s population.

In other words, half the world still lives in extreme poverty. That’s easy to forget if we just focus on the absolute poorest. We have a long way to go.

Here’s a graph from the book Reducing Global Poverty that shows the poverty headcount at several different levels, and projects the change in the decades to come. In the year 2040, half of the world is likely to be taking home less than $10 a day.

Of course, we want everyone to enjoy a healthy and fulfilling life, to reach their full potential and get an honest day’s wages. But when you consider how many people there are to raise up to anything like the Western standard of living, the environmental challenge should be obvious. Delivering that level of wealth to one billion people has brought side effects such as climate change and the 6th global extinction event. It can’t be universalized.

And that begs a question: are we content with a two tier world, or are we prepared to lower our own ecological impact to make room for others?



  1. not a problem. all can live as in the west or better when we recognize how much is wasted. i would put it at greater than 99%.

    1. Yes, but I think recognising our problems is sometimes quite easy, whereas, the will to prevent it as much as possible, for the benefit of all, is often more of a problem.

    2. True. Can not say I agree with the 99%, but if greed and wastage were to be sorted then we would be able to settle the remainder of people that are in REAL poverty, not poverty because their government isn’t giving services and are eating public funds for example. Also not every country has to be industrialized like USA in order for the people to have a quality life.

  2. “In the year 2040, 70% of the world will still be taking home less than $10 a day”

    What is the projected global population are you using for 2040? Most I see suggest about 9 billion. 5 billion is not 70% of 9 billion. If think you are using the current population which is why your maths is off.

      1. I think it is an important point that these figures are set in the context of a projected increase of population of 2 billion, yet still absolute poverty, and indeed <$10 a day poverty is declining. Swimming against the tide of an extra 2 billion is an even greater success.

        The answer to your question as to whether we will reduce our ecological footprint to make space for others is simple. If by that you mean be economically worse off then no, we will not do so voluntarily. In the US the middle classes have only had a freeze in living standards for 10 -20 years and they were angry enough to elect a man as unsuited to be President as Donald Trump. A real cut forever…. . It is clear that our global fellow feeling is much weaker than some hoped and that national attachments are stronger.

        I don't think that it is a moral slam-dunk that we should either. Those who are poor are not poor because we are rich. If that were the case then we should have to share but when we were poor, before the industrial Revolution and subsequent great enrichment, their ancestors were equally poor. Poverty, absolute, less than a dollar a day kind, is the natural state of humanity. The idea that wealth is a zero sum game is Trumpian thinking – I am poor because he took my wealth away to make himself rich. That was disproved two centuries ago.
        We are ensuring that those who are in absolute poverty, such that they will die of that poverty, is rapidly declining. Our wealth through technological and medical advancements is increasing the quality of life for even the very poorest. The poor are always with us, but now is the best time ever to be so.

        1. I agree on population and much else besides in that comment. It’s worth bearing in mind that a big factor in US wage stagnation is increased gains at the top. Returns to labour have fallen, with higher returns to capital instead. So inequality is absolutely key here.

          That doesn’t mean taking money away from rich people. Redistribution doesn’t get the heart of the matter. The challenge is to give people a stake in the economy so that benefits are shared better in the first place.

          You’ll note that I say we need to reduce our ecological impact, not that we need to make ourselves poor. Wealth is not zero sum, but the atmosphere is.

        2. There are some interesting points brought up here, but I don’t think the “I’m rich because you’re poor” argument is actually all that far off. In developing countries, land grabbing is huge. Many of these people who are now considered the world’s poor were not that way before colonialism, largely because of the way they used the land. They managed it responsibly and lived off of it (there is quite a bit of academic research showing how the tragedy of the commons is not the natural course of actions, particularly in indigenous communities in the Global South–I can provide resources if you are interested.) So although in terms of income and material wealth they were poor, the situation is not as destitute as we consider. However, when Europeans came in, they either killed these populations or removed them and forced them to live somewhere else. Why? To farm, mine and deforest to meet the infinitely expanding consumption needs of the West. This continued (continues), particularly in Africa, but really all around the former Empires, through corrupt governments and multinational corporations that are seeking the same profit as the colonialists were. So while in theory, someone in Kenya is not poor because I, from the US, am “wealthy,” the unequal distribution of land around the world came about and is propagated so that I can keep buying new iPhones, have cheap clothes and eat bananas year round.(In US terms I am not wealthy, but globally I am. Also, I don’t buy these things, using first person for effect.) So while getting people to agree to share their wealth is admittedly impossible, removing the role of the individual in perpetuating global poverty cannot be overlooked. Living in the West means being addicted to material possessions, in one way or another. Since the average person is unwilling to give these up, or pay more for them to ensure their production is fair and equitable, I fear we are in a position where poverty is unlikely to genuinely be removed. When you add on top the fact the wealthy can make money while not investing anything back into society (Wall street), the role of the individual becomes even more apparent. Yet, as you say, we are turning inside, abandoning our “global fellow feeling” for we fear losing this fake existence we’ve propped up around us. Solving poverty comes down to resources, which also affects the planet and climate change. So, in many ways, the two issues are interconnected. But since solving both of them relies on rich Westerners learning to live with less, not working for the sake of working, and sharing some of their wealth, my hopes for solving both issues are grim. I hope I am wrong.

  3. So Jeremy, it seems that you need not concern yourself with the very poor. They may not have the basics but, apparently, they can eat cake!

      1. I believe exactly as you say. You perhaps missed my point as you are not used to me writing in that way. (I thought the exclamation mark would do it!)

  4. the poor or the type of people referred to as such will always be with us, but they do not have to live a lesser life than anyone else unless ignorance reigns.

    1. Well summed up jennonpress. ‘The poor you shall always have with you’. It is easy to quote on its own but it is usually associated with meaning that we have something better to offer them. It is useless to say it on it own. As you said jp ‘They know not what they do’ (those who speak and act out of ignorance).

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