From the Field

Global poverty: Facts, FAQs, and how to help

The world is making huge strides in overcoming global poverty. Since 1990, a quarter of the world has risen out of extreme poverty. Now, less than 10 percent of the world lives in extreme poverty, surviving on $1.90 a day or less.

When families move out of poverty, children’s health and well-being improve. Since 1990, the number of children dying — mostly from preventable causes such as poverty, hunger, and disease — is less than half of what it was, dropping from more than 35,000 a day to under 15,000.

While progress continues, fragile contexts and countries affected by conflict, poor governance, and natural disasters, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, have seen an increase in people living in poverty.

World Vision is committed to ending poverty and helping every child experience Jesus’ promise of life in all its fullness (John 10:10). Though eradicating global poverty is hard, particularly in fragile contexts, World Vision believes there is reason to hope.

Ending global poverty is a priority not only for World Vision. By 2030, as part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, global leaders aim to eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere.

Help end global poverty.

History of the eradication of poverty

In the past two hundred years, the world has made tremendous progress in ending global poverty.

Image courtesy of Our World in Data

1820: The vast majority of the world lived in extreme poverty 200 years ago. Only a small elite segment enjoyed higher standards of living. Since then, economic growth has transformed our world, lifting more people out of poverty even while population numbers have multiplied sevenfold.

1945: Following World War II, representatives of 50 countries signed the U.N. Charter, which acknowledged that maintaining peace is connected with improved social development and social justice.

1964: President Lyndon Johnson declared “war on poverty” in the United States.

1970: The number of people living in extreme poverty peaked at 2.2 billion.

1981: The World Bank began collecting data on global poverty. Mostly through household surveys, they found that 44 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty.

1990: The World Bank defined extreme poverty as people living on $1 or less a day. Around 1.85 billion people, or 36 percent of the world’s population, lived in extreme poverty. Nearly half the population in developing countries lived on less than $1.25 a day.

1992: The U.N. adopted Agenda 21, committing to work together to combat global poverty using country-specific solutions.

1995: The United Nations brought together the largest gathering of world leaders until then, at the World Summit for Social Development, where leaders wrote the Copenhagen Declaration as a pledge to eradicate poverty.

1997: The U.N. General Assembly declared the First U.N. Decade for Eradication of Poverty from 1997 to 2006, taking the commitment from the Copenhagen Declaration and putting it into action.

2000: All 191 United Nations member states signed the Millennium Development Goals, eight goals to achieve by 2015, including reducing extreme poverty rates — then calculated as people living on less than $1 a day — by half.

2008: The World Bank re-established the international poverty line as people living on $1.25 a day, using 2005 prices for the cost of living. U.N. leaders declared the Second U.N. Decade for Eradication of Poverty from 2008 to 2017, expanding on the success of the first decade and focusing on jobs and income generation as a way to combat poverty.

2010: The Millennium Development Goal of reducing the 1990 extreme poverty rates by half was achieved five years earlier than expected.

2012: The U.N. General Assembly adopted a new resolution about the future they want, recognizing that, “Eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge facing the world today.”

2015: The World Bank raised the international poverty line from $1.25 a day to $1.90, based on 2011 prices for the cost of living. Also, United Nations member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which include goals to end poverty and hunger in all their forms.

FAQs: What you need to know about global poverty

Explore frequently asked questions about extreme poverty, poverty statistics, and learn how you can help end global poverty. Also, find out what the Bible says about poverty.

Fast facts: Global poverty

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How can I help end global poverty?

  • Learn more about World Vision’s work to eradicate global poverty.
  • Pray with us for World Vision’s work around the world using Matthew 25 prayer guides.
  • Give to bring lasting change around the world by delivering life-saving help where it’s needed most.
  • Sponsor a child to help provide access to essentials such as clean water, healthcare, economic opportunity, and education. For $39 a month, you’ll help that child and their community to stand tall, free from poverty.

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What is poverty?

Although poverty is often discussed in terms of dollar amounts, quality of life is also part of the conversation. Living in poverty means a life of struggle and deprivation.

Children living in poverty often lack access to a quality education. Sometimes it’s because there’s not enough quality schools, their parents cannot afford school fees, or because impoverished families need their children to work. Without a quality education, children grow up being unable to provide for their own children — thus the generational cycle of poverty.

Living in poverty also means not being able to afford a doctor or medical treatment. It means no electricity, limited shelter, and often little to no food on the table. For young children, improper nutrition can mean stunting and wasting that permanently impact their development. In impoverished countries where many people lack access to clean water and sanitation, poverty means the spread of preventable diseases and the unnecessary death of children.

Historically, poverty has been calculated based on a person’s income and how much he or she can buy with that income, but new multidimensional measures are more holistic.

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What is extreme poverty?

Since 2015, the World Bank has defined extreme poverty as people living on $1.90 or less a day, measured using the international poverty line. But extreme poverty is not only about low income; it is also about what people can or cannot afford.

Extreme poverty is identified in two ways: absolute poverty and relative poverty.

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What is absolute poverty and relative poverty?

Absolute poverty is when a person cannot afford the minimum nutrition, clothing, or shelter needs in their country.

Relative poverty is a household income below a certain percentage, typically 50 or 60 percent, of the median income of that country. This measurement takes into consideration the subjective cost of participating in everyday life. For example, plumbing is a necessity in some places; without plumbing, a person could be considered impoverished. However, in other places plumbing is a luxury. Relative poverty is useful for considering income inequality within a country.

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What is multidimensional poverty?

Multidimensional poverty acknowledges that poverty isn’t always about income. Sometimes a person’s income might be above the poverty line, but their family has no electricity, no access to a proper toilet, no clean drinking water, and no one in the family has completed six years of school.

looks beyond income to measure a person’s healthcare, education, and living standards to determine poverty levels. It was developed in 2010 by the U.N. Development Program and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative.

Within the categories of health, education, and living standards, there are 10 key indicators of multidimensional poverty that include nutrition, child mortality, years of schooling, school attendance, cooking fuel, sanitation, drinking water, electricity, housing, and assets. If a person is experiencing deprivation in three of more of these standards, then he or she is multidimensionally poor.

The Global Multidimensional Poverty Index offers a thorough look at poverty and can provide guidance for the specific interventions necessary in each country to eliminate poverty.

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How is poverty measured?

Poverty is measured by each country’s government, which gathers data through household surveys of their own population. Entities like the World Bank provide support and may conduct their own surveys, but this data collection is time-consuming and slow. New forms of high-frequency surveys using estimates and mobile phone technology are being developed and tested.

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What is a poverty line, and how are poverty lines calculated?

A poverty line, also called a poverty threshold, is the line below which it is difficult, if not impossible, to afford basic needs. The poverty line is determined in each country by adding up the cost of meeting minimum needs, such as food and shelter. Household incomes that are too low to afford minimum needs, such as food and shelter, are below the poverty line.

The income necessary to afford meeting minimum needs typically sets the poverty line for a country. Poverty lines can then be compared between countries. The international poverty line is the standard poverty line for measuring poverty globally. However, relatively new measures such as the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index include measurements of health, education, and living standards, all as signs of poverty.

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Is the poverty line the same in every country?

Poverty lines are not the same in all countries. In higher income countries, the cost of living is higher and so the poverty line is higher, too. In 2017, the World Bank announced new median poverty lines, grouping countries into low-income, middle-income, and high-income countries and finding the median poverty line for those groups:

  • $1.91 per person per day — in 33 low-income countries
  • $3.21 per person per day — in 32 lower-middle-income countries, such as India and the Philippines
  • $5.48 per person per day — in 32 upper-middle-income countries, such as Brazil and South Africa
  • $21.70 per person per day — in 29 high-income countries

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What is the international poverty line?

The international poverty line, currently set at $1.90 a day, is the universal standard for measuring global poverty. This line helps measure the number of people living in extreme poverty and helps compare poverty levels between countries.

As the cost of living increases, poverty lines increase too. Since 1990, the international poverty line rose from $1 a day, to $1.25 a day, and most recently in 2015 to $1.90. This means that $1.90 is necessary to buy what $1 could in 1990.

In addition to the lowest-income poverty line at $1.90, the World Bank also reports poverty rates using two new international poverty lines: a lower middle-income line set at $3.20/day and an upper middle-income line set at $5.50 a day.

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What is the poverty line in the United States?

In the U.S. for a family a four, the poverty line is $25,100 a year. This means that families who earn less than that cannot afford rent, food, or other basic needs. For an individual in the U.S., the poverty line is $12,140 a year, or $33.26 per day. This poverty guideline is calculated based on information from the Census Bureau and is updated by evaluating recent price changes using the Consumer Price Index.

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What was the war on poverty?

The term “war on poverty” was coined by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In President Johnson’s first State of the Union address, he acknowledged that one-fifth of Americans were living in poverty and called for “a national war on poverty.” With his war on poverty, President Johnson launched Medicare and Medicaid, expanded social security benefits, solidified the food stamps program, and subsidized school districts with a large share of impoverished students.

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How many people live in poverty?

Recent estimates for global poverty are that 8.6 percent of the world, or 736 million people, live in extreme poverty on $1.90 or less a day, according to the World Bank.

In the United States, 12.3 percent of the population, or 39.7 million people, live in poverty — with an income of less than $33.26 per day — according to the 2017 census.

These numbers are calculated based on income and a person’s ability to meet basic needs. However, when looking beyond income to people experiencing deprivation in health, education, and living standards, 1.3 billion people in 104 developing countries are multidimensionally poor, according to a 2018 survey by the U.N. Development Program.

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What are the root causes of poverty?

The root causes of poverty are not only lack of access to basic necessities of life like water, food, shelter, education, or healthcare. Poverty is also caused by inequities including gender or ethnic discrimination, poor governance, conflict, exploitation, and domestic violence. These inequities not only lead a person or a society into poverty but can also restrict access to social services that could help people overcome poverty.

The places most entrenched in poverty are fragile contexts, which can be entire countries or areas of a country. In fragile states areas, children and communities face higher rates of poverty due to political upheaval, past or present conflict, corrupt leaders, and poor infrastructure that limits access to education, clean water, healthcare, and other necessities.

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What is the cycle of poverty?

Poverty can be a trap. For someone to get out of poverty, they need opportunities such as an education, clean water, medical facilities nearby, and financial resources. Without these basic elements, poverty becomes a cycle from one generation to the next.

If families are too poor to send their children to school, their children will have a difficult time earning an income when they grow up. If a community lacks clean water, women will spend much of their day fetching water instead of earning an income. If medical facilities are far away, a parent loses income every time they take a sick child to the doctor.

Natural disasters and conflict can add to the cycle of poverty or add people to it . When a natural disaster strikes an impoverished community without functional public institutions, families are more vulnerable and often lack basic resources to recover, thus further entrenching a community in poverty or jeopardizing one that had recently emerged.

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How can we end global poverty?

We can help end global poverty by identifying what is causing poverty in a particular community and then determining what needs to change. Because poverty looks different in various places and is caused by different factors, the work to eradicate global poverty varies on the context.

World Vision works with a “Theory of Change” for each community. In partnership with the community members, we determine the desired outcomes for that community and identify key steps to reach that outcome. The desired outcomes might be the same for many communities, but the path to get there depends on the context and the resources available.

Perhaps infrastructure needs to be improved with new schools, medical clinics, or access to clean water. Or maybe, people need more economic resources to help boost their income so they can better provide for themselves and their families. Regardless of the solution, in order to ensure poverty doesn’t return, the work must be sustainable. So, the community must be involved in each step.

To end extreme poverty, the U.N. estimates that the total cost per year would be about $175 billion, less than one percent of the combined income of the richest countries in the world.

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What progress has been made in reducing global poverty?

Since 1990, more than 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty and child mortality has dropped by more than half. Reducing extreme poverty rates was a central goal in the Millennium Development Goals — eight goals signed by all United Nations member states in 2000 with a goal to achieve them by 2015. Since then, there has been much progress made in reducing global poverty.

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What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

The Sustainable Development Goals are a plan of action for countries worldwide to unify in a global partnership for the benefit of people, the planet, and prosperity. By 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals aim to end extreme poverty for all people everywhere and at least cut in half the proportion of people living in poverty in all its forms. The United Nations’ member states adopted this goal to end poverty as one of 17 goals in September 2015.

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What is World Vision’s response to global poverty?

Since 1950, World Vision has been working to pull up the root causes of poverty’s weeds and plant the seeds of change. We see the multidimensional reality of global poverty, and so our work targets the biggest challenges: hunger and food security, clean water, health, education, economic empowerment, gender equality, disability inclusion, spiritual poverty, disaster relief, and child protection.

With our donors’ support, in a single year we worked to:

As a child-focused organization, World Vision sees children as a community’s most precious resource and central to addressing poverty. Our development approach focuses on children and seeks to empower their families, local communities, and partners to address the underlying causes of poverty, so children and the community can prosper.

Since poverty is different in each context, World Vision works with communities, families, local leaders, and children themselves to identify solutions and transform lives. We are expanding our focus to fragile contexts because, although they are difficult places to work, they are also where the most vulnerable children increasingly live. By 2030, it is estimated that 80 percent of the world’s extremely poor will live in fragile contexts.

As one of the largest Christian humanitarian organizations in the world, we have the infrastructure, experience, and relationships needed to bring about lasting change. With more than 65 years of fieldwork, we are making fullness of life possible for children and families.

World Vision has 42,000 staff worldwide who work in nearly 100 countries; 95 percent of our staff work in their home regions. Our long-term presence in communities, the trust we establish, and our integrated community development model enable us to address the many of the root causes of poverty.

 

Our work includes four main steps:

    • Listen: We start by following Jesus’ example of coming alongside communities and listening to their unique challenges and needs. We sit down with children, families, churches, and community leaders. Do they need clean water, better schools, a dependable supply of food, basic healthcare, or local jobs? What opportunities do they see?
    • Develop: Next, we work with the community to develop five-year action plans that address the root causes of their poverty and help bring fullness of life for all.
    • Act: Then we help them put it into action. We work with their existing leaders and empower new ones, bringing the community together to address the needs they’ve identified. And if the action plan isn’t working as well as it should, we go back and revise it. This helps communities get what they need such as healthcare, education, clean water, nutritious food, and economic opportunity.
    • Train: We also train them so they know best how to care for and grow these new resources for years to come. When the community has grown healthier, safer, and more self-sustaining, then we transition out and move on to the next community in need. By now, the community is a better place for children to live and grow, they are more equipped to handle emergencies, and they can help their neighbors.

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