The Current Discussion: In the future, global prosperity will present more of a threat than poverty, according to a recent Post op-ed. Is this just rich-American rhetoric, or is the world really getting too prosperous for its own good?
Will prosperity be more of a threat than poverty in the future? If GDP keeps rising the world over as it has in recent years, poverty will virtually disappear by any absolute yardstick (like the World Bank’s benchmark of consumption per capita of $1 per day in PPP, or purchasing power parity, terms) in, say, 50 years. For most countries, however, poverty has become a relative concept, not an absolute one. Countries have a habit of constantly adjusting the poverty line upwards as they get richer. The U.S. poverty line is $10,400 per year for an individual, against just US$200 per year in India. So by Indian standards, the American “poor” are fabulously well off. Yet the concern of Americans about their “poor” is as genuine and strong as it is in India.
Relative poverty is insoluble: no matter how rich a society becomes it will never go away. We may one day have a plutocratic society where all the rich are billionaires or trillionaires, and so drip with sympathy for “poor” millionaires. You could call this a problem of relative poverty. You could also call it a problem of relative prosperity.
Prosperity in absolute terms is not a problem. Yes, it carries undesirable side effects, such as pollution and urban congestion. But a rich society has the money to tackle such ills. The air and waters of rich countries are much cleaner than they were 50 years ago. The very opposite is true in poor countries like China or India. Indira Gandhi, India’s former Prime Minister, once said that poverty was the greatest pollutant.
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