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Poverty around the world

Inequities are killing people on a "grand scale" reports WHO's Commission

"(The) toxic combination of bad policies, economics, and politics is, in large measure, responsible for the fact that a majority of people in the world do not enjoy the good health that is biologically possible," the Commissioners write in Closing the Gap in a Generation: Health Equity through Action on the Social Determinants of Health.

According to WHO (World Health Organization), approximately 1.2 billion people in the world live in extreme poverty (less than one dollar per day). Poverty creates ill-health because it forces people to live in environments that make them sick, without decent shelter, clean water or adequate sanitation.

What is poverty? defines poverty like this. Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.

Poverty has many faces, changing from place to place and across time, and has been described in many ways (for a collection of readings, see Poems and Personal Accounts of Poverty). Most often, poverty is a situation people want to escape. So poverty is a call to action -- for the poor and the wealthy alike -- a call to change the world so that many more may have enough to eat, adequate shelter, access to education and health, protection from violence, and a voice in what happens in their communities.

Much work has been done using consumption or income-based measures of poverty, but also on non-income dimensions of poverty, most notably in the Human Development Report prepared annually by the United Nations Development Programme. See New Directions in Poverty Measurement below.

Measuring poverty at the country level

A common method used to measure poverty is based on incomes or consumption levels. A person is considered poor if his or her consumption or income level falls below some minimum level necessary to meet basic needs. This minimum level is usually called the "poverty line". What is necessary to satisfy basic needs varies across time and societies. Therefore, poverty lines vary in time and place, and each country uses lines which are appropriate to its level of development, societal norms and values.

For details on methodology, see the Measuring Poverty topic in the Poverty Analysis site. For data see Data and Data Sources.

When estimating poverty worldwide, the same reference poverty line has to be used, and expressed in a common unit across countries. Therefore, for the purpose of global aggregation and comparison, the World Bank uses reference lines set at $1.25 and $2 per day (2005 Purchasing Power Parity terms). Using improved price data from the latest (2005) round of the International Comparison Program, new poverty estimates released in August 2008 show that about 1.4 billion people in the developing world (one in four) were living on less than $1.25 a day in 2005, down from 1.9 billion (one in two) in 1981. The new international poverty line of $1.25 a day at 2005 prices is the mean of the national poverty lines for the 10-20 poorest countries of the world. While the revised estimate is significantly higher than earlier estimates of less than a billion people living under $1 a day in 1993 prices, the developing world as a whole remains on track to meet the first Millennium Development Goal to halve extreme poverty from its 1990 levels by 2015. However, poverty is more pervasive than earlier estimated, and efforts to fight it will have to be redoubled, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Also, lags in survey data availability mean that the new estimates do not yet reflect the potentially large impact on poor people of rising food and fuel prices since 2005.

The research behind the new estimates is explained in a research paper "The Developing World Is Poorer Than We Thought, But No Less Successful in the Fight against Poverty" by Ravallion and Chen (2008) and in a shorter, bulleted brief, and web article. The data will be available onPovcalNet on September 30, 2008.

World Development Report (WDR) 2000/01: Attacking Poverty. This work includes assembling comparable and high-quality social indicators for education, health, access to services and infrastructure.

Between 1981 and 2005, the number of people in poverty has fallen by around 600 million in China alone. In the developing world outside China, the poverty rate has fallen from 40 to 29 percent over 1981-2005, although the total number of poor has remained unchanged at around 1.2 billion.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the $1.25 a day poverty rate has shown no sustained decline over the whole period since 1981, starting and ending at around 50 percent. In absolute terms, the number of poor people has nearly doubled, from 200 million in 1981 to 380 million in 2005. However, there have been signs of recent progress; the poverty rate fell from 58% in 1996 to 50% in 2005.

The $2 a day poverty rate has risen in Eastern Europe and Central Asia since 1981, though with signs of progress since the late 1990s.

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