Is Poverty Awareness at Its Peak?

Martin Ravallion of the World Bank traces poverty awareness over the last three centuries and finds we may be at a historical peak. Using Google Books references as an indicator, Ravallion finds that “there was a seven-fold increase in the incidence of references to poverty between 1740 and 1790. Toward the end of the Enlightenment, around the time of the French and American Revolutions, there was what I will call a ‘Poverty Enlightenment.’ But attention then faded through the 19th and 20th centuries. A significant awakening of attention to poverty — a second Poverty Enlightenment — came around 1960. The peak in the average incidence of references to poverty was around 2000, when the available series ends.” Of course, poverty awareness doesn’t necessarily lead to effective policy, as Ravallion points out: “Translating this peak of awareness of poverty at the outset of the 21st century into effective action is, of course, another matter. The second Poverty Enlightenment has entailed much debate and a mixed record of successes and failures in the fight against poverty.” [%comments]

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  1. Ian Kemmish says:

    Conversely, maybe there was just a boom in literacy between those two dates, when people referred to poverty without using the word “poverty”?

    Dickens and Dostoevsky certainly produced stark pictures of poverty, and it seems reasonable to assume that their works were far more widely read than the presumed thousands of reports for NGOs which I’d guess were inflating the word count at the end of the period under study. Victorians cannot fail to have been “aware” of poverty.

    It seems fishy that the author dates the “start” of the second period of awareness in 1960 – some years AFTER the establishment of modern welfare states in various places around the world. Might it not merely reflect the start of what a cynic might call “the poverty industry”?

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  2. Harrison Brookie says:

    It’s also possible, that poverty isn’t talked about before the Industrial Revolution because everyone was poor.

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  3. Eric M. Jones says:

    @2 – Harrison Brookie:

    Knocked it out of the park! Well done.

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  4. kingbadger says:

    So it’s time to start shorting the Poverty Awareness Index? Can AIG sell me Poverty Default Swaps?

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  5. Xian says:

    poverty is only noticed, where there is direct interaction with those who are and those who care. In this conected age “Awareness” will not subside, more of us may become more numb to the constant barage of information. Look at how many ads are coming at us in one day compared to a decade ago, there are ads everywhere, every web page, every TV channel, half the pages of magazines/newspaper.

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