24 Jun 2019 19:19 IST

Counting the poor can miss the point

Reflecting on poverty’s retreat, though, generates sympathy. Bad numbers are better than no numbers

Frustration is a reasonable first response to reading Anthony Atkinson’s last book. More reflection brings more sympathy, and then some more frustration.“Measuring Poverty Around the World” was far from finished when the author, a leading expert on poverty in the United Kingdom and the world, died on January 1, 2017. It has been shepherded to publication in almost-draft form by John Micklewright and Andrea Brandolini, two long-time collaborators.

The decision to honour the deceased by not completing his work is an immediate source of exasperation. Most potential readers, and perhaps Atkinson himself, would have preferred a finished effort by several scholars to a book with numerous blank and crudely written sections.

Still, “Measuring Poverty” is sufficiently complete to provide a good tour of the bewildering system which generates familiar statistics about the poor. The reading experience provides another disappointment, this time with the specialised world where Atkinson was an acknowledged pioneer. It is all too clear that none of the published numbers can be taken at face value.

The book is honest about the numerous questions and uncertainties which surround these measures. To start, what is poverty? A family is unquestionably poor if its child dies because of the inability to obtain adequate food. However, that demarcation seems far too harsh to define economic desperation.

Children should probably be considered poor if their growth is stunted or they lack access to basic healthcare and education. But is it fair to consider the inability to afford a car, or holidays away from home, to be signs of deprivation, as they are in European Union measures?

There are further theoretical and practical questions. What information is relevant? How accurate are surveys and government data? What does the raw data really show? Are numbers truly comparable over time and between countries? After about 100 pages of explanation, it becomes clear that none of these questions have satisfactory answers.

The standard global definition of poverty — an income worth less than $1.90 a day — is no more than a rough hypothesis. There has been a dramatic decline in the portion of the world’s population which falls below this line. But the reported numbers – from 35 per cent of the global population in 1990 down to 10 per cent in 2013 — are basically educated guesses.

Reflecting on poverty’s retreat, though, generates sympathy. Bad numbers are much better than no numbers. The global measures of income are good enough to reflect the heartening gains in the various dimensions of reducing economic misery. However imperfect, the statistics and the work to define and collect them have given governments valuable information and clear indications of progress in the battle against poverty.

Yet the relentless focus on measuring aspects of individual lives is too narrow. It misses or undervalues much of the most important gains from economic development.

The most significant omission can actually be counted: the global increase in average life expectancy at birth. This has risen from 50 years in 1965 to 71 years today. Measurements of poverty notice that gain, but do not describe it as a triumph. However, it is hard to imagine a change that has brought more joy to the world than the dramatic decline in infant and child mortality, which is the main source of longer average lives.

Better still, the longer lives are generally better ones. Statistics can describe improved access to schooling, medicine, mobile communication and travel. However, it takes more imagination to describe the human enrichment that results from the unprecedented spread of knowledge and opportunities to billions of people. Atkinson noted that the cut-off line for poverty has been drifting upwards as more goods and services come to be seen as essential, but he seemed almost blind to what might be called the cultural multiplier of these basic gains.

Still, Atkinson, like all poverty researchers, certainly shared the reader’s ultimate frustration. Although so much has been done to eliminate the worst poverty, roughly one-seventh of the world’s people remain mired in totally unnecessary misery. That proportion is shockingly large from an ethical perspective precisely because it is entirely manageable from a pragmatic perspective. It should now be relatively easy to make the basic goods of modern prosperity universally available.

“Measuring Poverty” is an incomplete book, just as measuring poverty is a work in progress. If Atkinson’s followers write an updated version in a few years, the statistics are likely to be more accurate, as modernisation makes the data easier to collect. The measures will probably be more wide-ranging, because researchers are keen to keep track of different marks of well-being.

Hopefully, however, the most important improvement will be in the numbers themselves. There should be far fewer very poor people in the world. That would be the best imaginable tribute to Atkinson’s work.