How China Wiped Out Half the World’s Extreme Poverty

When the world’s ultra-poor spend almost all of their meager cash on food, they never acquire the durable goods or productive assets that enable them to climb out of their predicament. Buying a handcart or a bike or farming implements provides a chance to begin moving from bleak subsistence to a toehold in the lower middle class. It may take a generation or two, but I’m elated whenever I see it happen.

Now, in a New York Times essay about ending poverty, Annie Lowrey shares an economic perspective that is the most encouraging thing I’ve read in months:

This deadly and cyclical form of poverty is already on its way toward obsolescence, and much faster than many development economists expected. The first Millennium Development Goal — to halve the proportion of the world population living in dire poverty by 2015 — was met five years early, as the rate fell to an estimated 21 percent in 2010, from 43 percent in 1990. Some economists had feared that the recession would arrest or even reverse the trend, given how interconnected the global economy is, but the improvement continued, unabated. Annual growth dipped for developing economies in 2009 but has since rebounded to about 5.3 percent a year, a figure dragged down by weaker peripheral European economies.

For much of the improvement, the world can thank one country: China, which alone accounts for about half of the decline in the extreme poverty rate worldwide. [emphasis added] It has also driven significant gains across the region. In the early 1980s, East Asia had the highest extreme-poverty rate in the world, with more than three in four people living on less than $1.25 a day. By 2010, just one in eight were.

Think of that, next time your bleeding-heart neighbor or colleague starts railing against work conditions at Foxconn or some other perceived shortcoming of capitalism in general (and China’s model in particular).

We shouldn’t close our eyes to factors like pollution, or ignore China’s still-abysmal free-speech record. But neither should we pooh-pooh the fact that the country’s policies have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty — not just in China itself but all across the Asian continent and beyond.

Ask yourself what has contributed more to the gradual and ongoing erosion of deep existential misery: The breathtaking capitalist fervor that China suddenly brought the table since the mid-nineties, or the reflexive, predictable protests from Western naysayers who claim to be humanitarians but would try and stop this mighty poverty-eradication machine.

Neither should negate the other; there’s honor in fighting the anti-liberty excesses of unbridled capitalism when they make actual victims. I’m just saying to go easy on the anti-capitalism rhetoric. As before, capitalism is the best weapon we have for material human advancement. Capitalism may be tweaked, it may be mocked, it may be criticized: but first and foremost, it deserves to be celebrated.

Just ask the half a billion people who recently reached up out of the economic muck and managed to leave the worst behind them.

About Rogier:
Rogier is a Dutch-born, New-England-dwelling multi-media maven (OK, a writer and photographer) whose dead-tree publishing credits include the New York Times, Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Reason.
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