The Death Of Poverty

Commentary, Poverty, Frontier Centre

Bad news is the mother's milk of public policy for the simple reason that failure stimulates creative thinking about remedies. But success can be just as instructive, even if it attracts much less attention.

A recent Cato Institute book, It's Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years, proves the point by comparing living standards in America at the new millennium with those in the year 1900. Although Canada has embraced tax and spending policies that give us a lower standard of living than our southern neighbour's, the book's general theme of vastly improved human conditions applies broadly here as well.

The exercise overwhelmingly refutes the gloom-and-doom pessimism that pervades our popular media. The authors demonstrate that there has been more improvement in the last century than there was "for all people in all previous centuries of human history combined."

If you think we're poor now, consider how people lived (and died) a hundred years ago. "The 19th century . . . was an era of tuberculosis, typhoid, sanitariums, child labor, child death, horses, horse manure, candles, 12-hour workdays, Jim Crow laws, tenements, slaughterhouses and outhouses," the book states. "Lynchings were common . . .. To live to 50 was to count one's blessings."

"For a mother to have all four of her children live to adulthood was to dramatically beat the odds of nature. About one in four . . .children in the 19th century perished before the age of 14. One hundred years ago, parents lived in fear of their child's dying; nowadays, middle-class suburban parents live in fear of their child's not making the . . .soccer team."

You might not know, for instance, that:

  • Average life expectancy in 1900 was 47 years. Today it is 77 and rising.
  • One in ten newborns died then, but today's infant mortality rate is one in 150.
  • The average person now enjoys a standard of living far superior to that of the wealthiest families a hundred years ago.
  • Farmers harvest one hundred times the crop their counterparts produced in 1900.
  • Almost all teenagers toiled in factories or fields back then. Today, nine out of ten attend high school.
  • The time devoted to leisure is triple that of our great-grandparents.
  • In 1900, a worker had to put in two hours to earn enough to purchase a chicken, compared with 20 minutes today. Real wages have quadrupled.

The authors, Stephen Moore and the late Julian Simon, marshal hundreds of other examples which demonstrate that progress has cut across all social classes. "Never before have quality of life improvements been spread to virtually every segment of the population as has happened . . . in this century," they point out. Simon argued for years that "human capital" represents the most important element in the accelerating rise in living standards. Constant improvements in productivity indicate "no fixed limit on our resources in the future."

Simon and Moore argue that the market economy has allowed the fullest expression of this capital because it has "cultivated risk taking, experimentation, innovation, and scientific exploration on a grand scale that has never occurred anywhere before." Before triumphant classical liberalism — which brought us democracy, civil rights and capitalism — sparked the Industrial Revolution, human progress had been glacial, with incomes increasing only 0.5 percent a year during the previous millennium. Since, starting in the seventeenth century, the West embraced a substantial degree of economic and political freedom, incomes have increased by just under three percent a year. Countries in all parts of the world have prospered — and, not coincidentally, enjoyed greater racial and gender equality — to the extent that they have adopted the same principles.

Three landmark achievements in the advance of technology have played key roles in creating and sustaining a general prosperity: modern medicine and vaccines, electricity and the microchip. Would these have developed in the absence of political liberty? Not likely, the authors maintain. As proof, they cite research that correlates economic freedom with life expectancy and wealth. In nations with the most freedom, citizens live an average 17 years longer and earn incomes about six times higher than those in repressive countries.

On a measure of economic freedom that runs from one to five, Canada rates only a four, primarily because of a high tax burden relative to those of the most prosperous countries. Canada may stand high on UN scales for soft measures like "quality of life", but it seems obvious that more take-home pay translates into a higher standard of living.

Our Greens should rejoice over the gains made in environmental quality. In 1900, clouds of soot and black smoke choked our cities and streets stank and brimmed with garbage. Prosperity made the installation of proper sewer and water systems affordable, causing rates of death from disease to plunge. Do wealthy countries consume too many resources? The statistics in Simon and Moore's book show they are net resource creators. We tend to produce much more than we consume, and we pass the surpluses on to future generations.

You can download the book from the Cato Institute website