INDIA The crushing poverty (two photos at left) that was still common in the 1990s has been substantially reduced. Cities such as Mumbai (right) have seen enormous growth in the past few decades. Robert Wallis/Corbis via Getty Images (Slum); David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images (Family); Towering Goals/Shutterstock.com (Mumbai)

Can We End Extreme Poverty?

In the past 30 years, the world has made huge progress toward improving lives and eliminating the worst kind of poverty

Imagine living with your family in a one-room hut with a dirt floor. There’s a small open fire that burns wood or cow dung to provide heat, light, and a place to cook. When you need water, you have to lug it in from a stream or a well some distance away. There’s no electricity and no toilet—just a pit outside. You spend most of your time working in a field to grow the food your family needs to keep hunger at bay.

You might go to school, but your family can’t afford the books, paper, and pencils you need. If you get sick, there’s no money for medicine. Refrigerators and cellphones are unimaginable luxuries.

This is what extreme poverty—defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1.90 a day—often looks like today in many parts of the globe. But the good news is that economists say the world has made great progress in the past three decades toward eliminating it. In 1990, about 36 percent of people worldwide—and nearly half of all people in developing countries—lived in extreme poverty. By 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, about 9 percent of the world’s people did.

Imagine living with your family in a one-room hut with a dirt floor. There’s a small open fire that burns wood or manure to provide heat, light, and a place to cook. When you need water, you have to carry it in from a stream or a well some distance away. There’s no electricity. And instead of a toilet, there’s a pit outside. You spend most of your time working in a field to grow the food your family needs to prevent hunger.

You might go to school, but your family can’t afford the books, paper, and pencils you need. If you get sick, there’s no money for medicine. Refrigerators and cellphones are rare luxuries.

This is what extreme poverty often looks like today in many parts of the globe. The World Bank defines this level of poverty as living on less than $1.90 a day.

But the good news is that economists say the world has made great progress in the past three decades toward ending it. In 1990, about 36 percent of people worldwide lived in extreme poverty. Nearly half of all people in developing countries lived in extreme poverty. By 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, about 9 percent of the world’s people lived in this kind of poverty.

The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than $1.90 a day.

9%

PERCENTAGE of world population living in extreme poverty in 201

97 million

NUMBER of people who fell into extreme poverty in 2020, when the pandemic derailed progress.

Source: The World Bank

That translates to more than a billion people around the world climbing out of the worst kind of poverty within a generation. China, Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova have effectively eradicated extreme poverty within their borders. And many other countries have made great gains in the effort.

“A lot of countries have seen dramatic progress,” says Charles Kenny, an expert on global poverty at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. “It’s a big deal because no one in a world with so much wealth should be living in such extreme poverty.”

The progress is widespread. In Ethiopia, nearly 7 out of 10 people lived on less than $1.90 a day in 1995, according to the World Bank; now that’s closer to 3 in 10. In Bangladesh, the proportion of people in extreme poverty dropped from about 43 percent in 1991 to 14 percent recently. In Indonesia, more than half the population lived in extreme poverty in 1990, compared with about 3 percent today.

That translates to more than a billion people around the world climbing out of the worst kind of poverty within a generation. China, Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova have almost wiped out extreme poverty within their borders. And many other countries have made great gains.

“A lot of countries have seen dramatic progress,” says Charles Kenny, an expert on global poverty at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. “It’s a big deal because no one in a world with so much wealth should be living in such extreme poverty.”

The progress is widespread. In Ethiopia, nearly 7 out of 10 people lived on less than $1.90 a day in 1995, according to the World Bank. Now that’s closer to 3 in 10. In Bangladesh, the share of people in extreme poverty dropped from about 43 percent in 1991 to 14 percent recently. In Indonesia, more than half the population lived in extreme poverty in 1990, compared with about 3 percent today.

World Vision

SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA Extreme poverty is increasingly concentrated here. But there are signs of progress: Loveness Phiri (left) draws water from her village’s new well in rural Zambia.

Improving Lives

How can people be so poor? Most people in extreme poverty have never had jobs that provide a steady income, experts say. They might get paid a small amount to work on a neighbor’s farm, or if they live in a city, they might sort through trash looking for something to sell.

“It just isn’t enough for a decent life,” Kenny says.

And the cycle often repeats with the children of the very poor: Lack of education means they have few work opportunities, so they’re stuck in the same subsistence life as their parents.

One reason for the recent progress is that many countries have invested in improving the lives of their poorest citizens. Mexico and Brazil raised living standards by giving money to the poor and requiring only regular health checkups and school attendance for children in return. Dozens of other countries have tried similar programs. The World Bank estimates that social safety net programs are responsible for 36 percent of the global reduction in extreme poverty.

How can people be so poor? Most people in extreme poverty have never had jobs that provide a steady income, experts say. They might get paid a small amount to work on a neighbor’s farm. If they live in a city, they might sort through trash looking for something to sell.

“It just isn’t enough for a decent life,” Kenny says.

And the cycle often repeats with the children of the very poor. They often lack education, so they have few work opportunities. That means they get stuck in the same life as their parents.

One reason for the recent progress is that many countries have invested in improving the lives of their poorest citizens. Mexico and Brazil raised living standards by giving money to the poor. In return, both countries require regular health checkups and school attendance for children. Dozens of other countries have tried similar programs. The World Bank estimates that social safety net programs are behind 36 percent of the global reduction in extreme poverty.

Access to clean water enabled Loveness Phiri to start a business.

Loveness Phiri, 30, lives in Nyeleti, Zambia, a village of mud-brick houses with thatched roofs. She used to wake up at 4 a.m. every day to trudge a long distance to the area’s only water source—a hand-dug well of often dirty water. If she wanted to cook or wash, she had to fill a huge container and carry it back balanced on her head.

Then in 2020, an antipoverty group drilled a new, much deeper well in the center of Nyeleti. The well has changed Phiri’s life—and the lives of many women in her village.

“I now sleep longer hours, drink clean water, bathe every day, and enjoy good health,” Phiri says.

And now that she has more time and easy access to clean water, Phiri has started a small business selling food.

Loveness Phiri, 30, lives in Nyeleti, Zambia, a village of mud-brick houses with grass roofs. She used to wake up at 4 a.m. every day to travel a long distance to the area’s only water source—a hand-dug well. The well’s water was often dirty. And she had to fill a huge container and carry it back balanced on her head if she wanted to cook or wash.

Then in 2020, an antipoverty group drilled a new, much deeper well in the center of Nyeleti. The well has changed Phiri’s life—and the lives of many women in her village.

“I now sleep longer hours, drink clean water, bathe every day, and enjoy good health,” Phiri says.

Now that she has more time and easy access to clean water, Phiri has started a small business selling food.

Xiao huanhuan-Imaginechina/AP Images

Yu Jing/China News Service via Getty Images

CHINA An elderly couple outside the cave in Sichuan province where they’ve lived for five decades (top); jobs at factories, like this one in Tongxin in 2020 (bottom), have enabled many Chinese to climb out of poverty.

Sending Children to School

China has devoted huge resources to eliminating extreme poverty. The government provided free elementary education for all children and financed major construction projects to bring electricity and clean water to rural areas. People have moved from the countryside to cities, where they work in factories and send money home.

The result of all this investment has been striking. Alan Piazza was an economist for the World Bank in the 1990s, and he remembers the “almost impossible poverty” he found when visiting isolated villages in the Ningxia region of north central China.

People lived in cave dwellings dug into desert sand. They had no electricity, no clean water, and the land had been badly eroded by grazing goats and sheep, turning the already arid terrain into a moonscape. To Piazza, improving conditions there seemed unimaginable.

But when he returned to the area in 2016, he was overwhelmed by the transformation. Families were living in brick homes with electricity and had access to clean water. Nearly every child attended school. Shrubs and grasses blanketed the hillsides, having returned after the government paid farmers to prevent their animals from grazing.

The result of all this investment—which is possible because China’s economy has grown almost 10 percent a year for 40 years—is that just 0.3 percent of China’s rural population now live on less than $1.90 a day, according to the most recent World Bank figures.

“It’s a great achievement,” says Ning Zhu, an economist at the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance.

The other example of this trend is India, the world’s second-most-populous country, after China. Ejaz Ghani, an economist at the World Bank, says the secret to India’s success in reducing extreme poverty has been steady economic growth over the past few decades—more than 6 percent a year since 2010. Millions of people have moved from tiny rural villages to seek better opportunities in cities, and that’s enabled 271 million Indians to climb out of extreme poverty in the past decade, according to a 2019 United Nations report.

“Poverty reduction takes place through job creation,” Ghani says. “Entrepreneurship matters. The higher the number of new enterprises that are being created, the more jobs you have, and that reduces poverty.”

You can see the tangible effects of that growth, says Akhil Bery, an expert at the Asia Society Policy Institute, in Washington, D.C. When he visits family in New Delhi, he notices the new middle-class neighborhoods springing up around the massive capital city. Mobile phones are everywhere, and they’re cheap enough that most Indians can afford them.

China has devoted huge resources to ending extreme poverty. The government provided free elementary education for all children. It also paid for major construction projects to bring electricity and clean water to rural areas. People have moved from the countryside to cities. Those who now work in factories can send money home.

The result of all this investment has been striking. Alan Piazza was an economist for the World Bank in the 1990s. He recalls the “almost impossible poverty” he found when visiting isolated villages in the Ningxia region of north central China.

People lived in cave dwellings dug into desert sand. They had no electricity and no clean water. The land had been badly destroyed by grazing goats and sheep. That turned the already dry surface into a moonscape. To Piazza, improving conditions there seemed impossible.

But when he returned to the area in 2016, he was shocked by the transformation. Families were living in brick homes with electricity and had access to clean water. Nearly every child went to school. Shrubs and grasses blanketed the hillsides, thanks to the government paying farmers to stop their animals from grazing.

This investment is possible because China’s economy has grown almost 10 percent a year for 40 years. The result of it all is that just 0.3 percent of China’s rural population now live on less than $1.90 a day, according to the most recent World Bank figures.

“It’s a great achievement,” says Ning Zhu, an economist at the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance.

The other example of this trend is India, the world’s second-most-populous country, after China. Ejaz Ghani, an economist at the World Bank, says the secret to India’s success in reducing extreme poverty has been steady economic growth over the past few decades. In fact, India’s economy has grown more than 6 percent a year since 2010. Millions of people have moved from tiny rural villages to seek better opportunities in cities. That shift has enabled 271 million Indians to climb out of extreme poverty in the past decade, according to a 2019 United Nations report.

“Poverty reduction takes place through job creation,” Ghani says. “Entrepreneurship matters. The higher the number of new enterprises that are being created, the more jobs you have, and that reduces poverty.”

You can see the effects of that growth, says Akhil Bery, an expert at the Asia Society Policy Institute, in Washington, D.C. When he visits family in New Delhi, he notices the new middle-class neighborhoods springing up around the massive capital city. Mobile phones are everywhere, and they’re cheap enough that most Indians can afford them.

Still Destitute

Despite the progress, about 700 million people, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa (see map, below), continue to live in utter destitution on less than $1.90 a day. The Brookings Institution projects that by 2030, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be home to a third of all the people living in extreme poverty in the world. In both countries, extreme poverty continues to grow, bucking the global trend of progress.

Also, the Covid-19 pandemic has at least temporarily made things worse for some on the precipice, pushing 97 million people worldwide into extreme poverty in 2020. But economists believe the trend can be reversed when the pandemic recedes in the poorest places, many of which still await the arrival of vaccines.

Mahesh Davar and his wife toil on a farm in central India, but they sent their two sons, now 12 and 14, to school, hoping an education would help them get better jobs and a more secure future. Unfortunately, the pandemic shuttered in-person schools in India two years ago, and the family can’t afford internet access to let them attend online.

Despite the progress, about 700 million people continue to live in very poor conditions on less than $1.90 a day. Most of them live in sub-Saharan Africa (see map, below). The Brookings Institution projects that by 2030, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be home to a third of all the people living in extreme poverty in the world. In both countries, extreme poverty continues to grow, bucking the global trend of progress.

Also, the Covid-19 pandemic has at least temporarily made things worse for some on the brink. It pushed 97 million people worldwide into extreme poverty in 2020. But economists believe the trend can be reversed when the pandemic fades in the poorest places. Still, many of these areas are waiting for the arrival of vaccines.

Mahesh Davar and his wife toil on a farm in central India. They sent their two sons, now 12 and 14, to school, hoping an education would help them get better jobs and a more secure future. Unfortunately, the pandemic led to in-person schools in India closing two years ago. The family can’t afford internet access to let them attend online.

‘Extreme poverty . . . is an eminently fixable problem.’

“Poor people like us fight every day to keep the stove burning,” Davar says. “Tell me how and where we will afford the money for mobile phones?”

And beyond those in extreme poverty, almost half of the world—3.3 billion people—lives on less than $5.50 a day, which is still barely enough to meet basic needs in many countries. Even with China’s progress, some 92 million people living there in urban areas get by on less than that amount.

Despite all the poverty that remains, what the gains made over the past few decades tell us, says Kenny of the Center for Global Development, is that change is possible when nations use the right tools to help people help themselves.

“That 1 in 10 of the world’s people are still living in extreme poverty isn’t an unfortunate, unavoidable fact of life; it is an eminently fixable problem we should have fixed already,” he says. “The progress we’ve made shows that this isn’t hopeless. We really can make dramatic progress, but only if we keep on trying.”

“Poor people like us fight every day to keep the stove burning,” Davar says. “Tell me how and where we will afford the money for mobile phones?”

And beyond those in extreme poverty, almost half of the world lives on less than $5.50 a day. That’s 3.3 billion people. The amount of money they make is still barely enough to meet basic needs in many countries. Even with China’s progress, some 92 million people living there in urban areas get by on less than that amount.

Despite all the poverty that remains, Kenny of the Center for Global Development says the gains make him hopeful. They show that change is possible when nations use the right tools to help people help themselves, he adds.

“That 1 in 10 of the world’s people are still living in extreme poverty isn’t an unfortunate, unavoidable fact of life; it is an eminently fixable problem we should have fixed already,” he says. “The progress we’ve made shows that this isn’t hopeless. We really can make dramatic progress, but only if we keep on trying.”

With reporting by Lucy Tompkins, Emily Schmall, and Sameer Yasir of The Times.

PROGRESS ON POVERTY

Extreme poverty in selected countries

HAITI
In the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, more than 20% of Haitians live in extreme poverty. But that’s a huge improvement from the more than 70% who did in 1990.

BRAZIL
Less than 5% of Brazilians live in extreme poverty, down from more than 27% in 1983.

DEM. REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
More than 70% of people live in extreme poverty—about the same proportion as in 1990.

INDONESIA
Less than 3% of Indonesians live in extreme poverty—a huge drop from the more than 50% in 1990.

INDIA
Less than 11% of Indians live in extreme poverty—down from almost 50% in 1990. But with a population of almost 1.4 billion, that’s still about 150 million Indians living in the worst poverty.

HAITI
In the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, more than 20% of Haitians live in extreme poverty. But that’s a huge improvement from the more than 70% who did in 1990.

BRAZIL
Less than 5% of Brazilians live in extreme poverty, down from more than 27% in 1983.

DEM. REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
More than 70% of people live in extreme poverty—about the same proportion as in 1990.

INDONESIA
Less than 3% of Indonesians live in extreme poverty—a huge drop from the more than 50% in 1990.

INDIA
Less than 11% of Indians live in extreme poverty—down from almost 50% in 1990. But with a population of almost 1.4 billion, that’s still about 150 million Indians living in the worst poverty.

Sources: The World Bank, Our World in Data

Sources: The World Bank, Our World in Data

Source: The World Bank

Number of Extreme Poor by Region, 1990–2017

Source: The World Bank

Number of Extreme Poor by Region, 1990–2017

Source: The World Bank