Episode 4: Poverty: Where We All Started

Why poverty isn’t caused by “overpopulation.”

How is poverty defined, for the purposes of this video?

For the purposes of this video, we use the World Bank’s definition of poverty. The World Bank defines poverty as:

… pronounced deprivation in well-being, and comprises many dimensions. It includes low incomes and the inability to acquire the basic goods and services necessary for survival with dignity. Poverty also encompasses low levels of health and education, poor access to clean water and sanitation, inadequate physical security, lack of voice, and insufficient capacity and opportunity to better one’s life.

You can find this definition of poverty online here. At PRI, we like this definition because it recognizes the true nature of poverty — that poverty is not just a state of having less money or posessions than others around you. Although those details are an integral part of poverty, real poverty is the lack of dignity and quality of life that results from that lack of money or possessions.

In other words, human beings require more than simple survival to make our lives worth living. This is why talking about poverty in terms of statistics can be tricky sometimes, as we will see below.

If overpopulation doesn’t cause poverty, what does cause it?

The thing to remember about poverty is that it isn’t a disease or a “condition,” like the measles or a broken leg. Poverty is the state of not having what we need. It is a terrible state to be in, to be sure, but it is the state we all revert to when our support structures are removed. Poverty is like darkness: it isn’t a thing. It’s the lack of a thing.

Essentially, the only way that poverty has ever been defeated, anywhere, is by infrastructures that humans have set up. So, when poverty does exist, it is when these infrastructures either 1) don’t exist, like in underdeveloped nations, or 2) are broken or have holes in them. Essentially, fixing poverty is about fixing bad infrastructure, not about eliminating people.

This is made obvious by the fact that the poorest nations in the world are often among the least populated. Take the Congo, for instance, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a meager per capita GDP of only $300. The Congo’s population density is only 75 people per square mile, a fairly light population density. Compare this with the Netherlands, one of the wealthiest countries in the world with per capita GDP of $39,200. The Netherlands has a population density of 1,039 people per square mile. (these numbers come from the CIA World Factbook.

You claim that when people move to more crowded areas, they’re actually more likely to get out of poverty. Prove it.

In 2008, the World Bank put out a paper called “Urban Poverty: A Global View,” which discussed the effects of urbanization (the process of more and more people moving to crowded, or “urban” areas). According to the World Bank, people who moved to urban areas were not only more likely to escape poverty, but were also likely to be better off over time because “urbanization contributes to sustained economic growth which is critical to poverty reduction.” (emphasis ours)

“Overall,” the World Bank continues, “the urbanization process has played an important role in poverty reduction by providing new opportunities for migrants and through the second-round impact on those who stay in rural areas …the urban economy provides opportunities for many and is the basis of growth and job creation.”

Of course, poverty in crowded areas still exists (which is the larger point of this paper). But the point is that it continues to exist in spite of, rather than because of human population.

You can read the whole paper here and judge for yourself.

What is it that brings human beings out of poverty?

Like most things, the answer to poverty isn’t any one simple thing. However, we can say with certainty that every method to alleviate poverty requires one primary ingredient: community.

Basically, in order for human beings to escape poverty, they need other human beings. Solitary human beings are incapable of solving some of the most basic problems that need to be solved in order for their lives to improve. With community, there is a collection of minds and a multiplication of labor that allows human beings to solve problems and accomplish more difficult and complicated tasks. The larger the community, the more effectively and creatively this division of labor is likely to occur.

According to acclaimed economist Julian Simon, the multiplication of humans has directly led to the improvement of our species:

“It is a simple fact that the source of improvements in productivity is the human mind, and a human mind is seldom found apart from a human body. And because improvements — their invention and their adoption — come from people, it seems reasonable to assume that the amount of improvement depends on the number of people available to use their minds.”

— Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource

Of course, this doesn’t mean that simple population growth leads to human improvement. There are plenty of places with large populations that remain poor. The point is, any time human beings get the opportunity to work together and better their situation, the percentage of poor people is likely to drop significantly.

You claim that as population has grown, the percentage of poor has gone down. Prove it.

According to demographers Joyce Burnette and Joel Mokyr, as humanity’s numbers have grown, our average standard of living has grown as well. These scientists wrote a paper entitled “The Standard of Living Through the Ages,” found in the book The State of Humanity (you can get the book from Amazon here). In it, they point out that every single statistic that we have on this subject points to one simple truth: that as population has grown over time, the average person has become better off.

They measured this in almost every way imaginable. Burnette and Mokyr have graphs showing rising per capita income. They have graphs showing average life expectancy, average height, caloric consumption, sugar consumption, cotton consumption, even beer consumption! Every single one of these averages has been steadily increasing over time as the population has grown.

This is in direct contradiction to overpopulation alarmists, who hold that as population increases poverty becomes more severe. They claim that this is simple common sense. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, science actually shows the opposite. As population grows, productivity and innovation grow, which means that more and more people have access to the goods and services that they need.

Maybe population control isn’t the answer to poverty. But does it actively hurt the poor?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is very, very yes. Population control programs don’t just miss the point on poverty … they distract from it. Poverty can be alleviated by a number of different programs. But when the focus is on bringing down population, valuable time, energy, and resources are spent solving a “problem” that doesn’t exist, rather than the real problems at hand.

“Family planning” programs miss the point, especially in places like Africa — which is that the people need legitimate, concrete aid. People who are hungry, cold and exposed need food, water, and shelter — not population control.