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  • Writer's pictureHenry Edwards

Global Poverty Christmas Cards?

This is the sixth installment of The Weekly Better Bulletin and I hope you find it informative and, most importantly, hopeful. The theme of The Weekly Better, from now until November when my book The Daily Better comes out, will be gratitude. In particular, I will remind you the reader of the fantastic world we live in. Yes, there are many big problems, but it's easy to forget the good things in life. 

So far we've learned about increased life expectancy and safety, better public health and medical treatments. Last week I talked about how we live in the most peaceful age ever (even if the last few years have gotten worse due to the Syrian civil war).

Today our topics are poverty and urbanization (and Christmas cards). 

I'll start with a metaphor. Do you have a niece or nephew you haven't seen in ages. When you think of them do you see a baby despite the fact that they're in college? It's a common problem. Just yesterday I shocked a friend when I told him my daughter's driving. He thought she was still in a stroller.

People change. That's why I send a Christmas card every holiday season. I want all the people who haven't seen my daughter to see her grow up, one year at a time. Social media has helped us watch children grow up (though my daughter eschews Facebook and rarely lets me take a picture of her). 

Social media helps us see change. Too bad planet earth doesn't have a social media page. If she did we would see the good things happening here. Right now we mostly see what's going wrong. 

So I hope this post is a Global Poverty Christmas card, a current picture of poverty and how cities affect poverty.

How poor do you think the world is? Is your picture up to date? Do you see rich and middle class people in the US and Europe, and everywhere else people live hand to mouth?

If you picture a Sally Struthers Christian Children's Fund ad then you need an update. The world has changed a lot since the 70s.

Update your worldview

Poverty reduction is one of the great--and greatly underreported--successes in human history. And the greatest reductions in poverty rates have been happening in recent years.

One of the best ways to get a sense of how spectacularly the world has changed for the better is by reading the book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. It's written by the late Hans Rosling, his son (and collaborator) Ola Rosling, and Ola's wife (and collaborator) Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Hans is the most famous of the three thanks to his hilarious and popular TED Talks . In Factfulness the authors describe ten errors people make when thinking about the world. One common thread that runs through the ten errors is that nearly all people have an outdated view of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. They think that the vast majority of people in these countries are poor and illiterate. While poverty still bedevils many parts of the world, in truth the positive changes in the last 30+ years are staggering. Most people have access to clean water, toilets, and electricity. More than 90% of children attend some elementary school, and about 80% of the world is literate. It's a far cry from the world 200 years ago.

When George Washington died from pneumonia--and the dubious blood letting of his "doctor"--more than 80% of the world lived in abject poverty, what we define as $1.90 or less a day in today's dollars. Today less than 10% of the world lives in abject poverty. 

How did this happen? 

The short answer is industrialization and urbanization, two sweeping forces that transformed the world in the 1800s. Many people think these were twin scourges on humanity, not poverty-ending forces. What about William Blake's "dark satanic mills?"

The industrial revolution was bad in many ways. Enclosure of the commons by the rich and powerful forced rural Britons to move to big cities in search of industrial work or to ships for the Americas. "London Fog" was caused more by smokestacks and home coal fires than humidity. Much was terrible but much got better. The new city dwellers had access to work, education, and entertainment. While urban water sometimes killed through cholera epidemics, public health breakthroughs by pioneers like John Snow (see my "To Your (Public) Health!" piece) brought clean water, a breakthrough that billions of humans enjoy today.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the flow of people from farms to cities has been nonstop. According to the UN and the International Organization for Migration, about 3 million people move to cities every week where they have access to all the services noted above. Another great thing happens when people move to cities. They have fewer children. Nowadays, in most of the world, people only have two children on average. That's good news because population growth is slowing and will evenutally reverse.

I hope that this Weekly Better Bulletin has been a Christmas card of sorts, a fresh picture of global poverty. Too many people still live in poverty, but things are getting better. Let's be grateful for the progress and keep working until everyone is pulled out of poverty. 

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