A Primer on Poverty and Economic Growth

Both China and India have seen their economies grow at breakneck speeds over the last decades. At the same time, the number of poor people residing in these two countries has been reduced substantially, although somewhat less sourcespectacularly in India compared to China.

Other indicators of wellbeing point in the same direction. Life expectancy in India is now 65 years as opposed to 42 in 1960; in China the numbers are 73 and 42 respectively. The number of Indian children dying before they reach the age of 5 is now about 60 for every 1000, compared to almost 200 in 1970. In China: about 20 for every 1000 now versus more than 100 in 1970.

It’s not outlandish therefore to assume that there’s a link between good economic growth and large reductions in poverty rates. Given the fact that some other potential causes of poverty reduction – such as foreign aid and good governance – have not been prominent in those two countries (to put it mildly), the growth hypothesis is even more persuasive.

Here are number of correlations for a larger set of countries. Here‘s the example of Africa, where growth and poverty are almost absolute mirror images.

However, does this mean that economic growth is a sufficient condition of poverty reduction? I don’t think so. A growing level of GDP per capita in an economy means that the average person is better off, financially as well as on some other dimensions given the strong correlations between GDP and other indicators of wellbeing. But improvements for the average person can go hand in hand with stagnating or even worsening poverty rates. A lot depends how the proceeds of high growth are distributed among the citizens of a country; distributed either

  • intentionally by government policy: through taxation and welfare policies that can be more generous in a richer economy
  • or automatically by some form of trickle down effect: more aggregate national income or production means more jobs, better paid jobs etc., at least in theory.

Trickle down economics has been somewhat discredited of late, so perhaps the causal effect of growth on poverty reduction must pass through government redistribution, at least in part. The anti-poverty efforts of India’s successive governments are well-known. Less well-known is the fact that in China as well governments have implemented a strong although probably insufficient social security system. (Insufficient because inequality has risen dramatically in China, and somewhat in India. Greater inequality dampens the poverty reducing effect of growth).

The crucial role of government led redistribution has been confirmed by this paper in which Lane Kenworthy compared growth and income data for 17 developed countries. Specifically, he looked at the ways in which the incomes of people in low to middle income groups benefit from economic growth. The nature of government transfer systems is the reason why the effect of growth on the incomes of the poor is not the same in all countries.

[W]hen households on low incomes got better off, it was due most often to a rise in net government transfers. Where net transfers increased, incomes tended to increase in concert with economic growth. Norway, the UK, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark illustrate this pattern. Where net transfers were stagnant, income trends were decoupled from growth of the economy. We observe this in the United States, Canada, and Switzerland. This is an important finding. It means that, as a general rule, growth has not trickled down to low income households through wages or employment. And it means that, when government transfers haven’t grown, wages and employment haven’t stepped in to take their place. (source)

So we can conclude that economic growth, although important, is probably not a sufficient condition for poverty reduction, at least not in all cases.

A final remark: it’s interesting to note that poverty reduction is one of the drivers of growth. So the causation goes both ways, as is often the case in correlations.

Policies that are effective in increasing the incomes of the poor–such as investments in primary education, rural infrastructure, health, and nutrition–are also policies that enhance the productive capacity of the economy in aggregate. (source)

Some other interesting studies on the topic are cited here.


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