Did over 95% of people around the world live in “extreme poverty” in 1820?

Read the Story

Show Top Comments

Extreme poverty refers to the constant threat of not being able to fulfill basic human needs. In the 1820s starvation was a constant threat to the average person even in the richest nations, as was inadequate shelter from heat and (especially) cold. Any form of travel was difficult for the average person and leisure travel was something usually only the rich engaged in. There are still people living in these conditions, but such conditions are nowadays rare to nonexistent in the richest nations, and not common in any but the poorest ones. This hasn’t been the case historically; for example the UK was a very, very rich nation in 1820, but that didn’t stop large parts of the population from living in extreme poverty.


A lot of people were still subsistence farmers and long-houred labourers, no? Hard to be anything but impoverished when you are barely meeting the needs of you and your family. Also, it’s not as if unions were powerful entities in 1820 that allowed workers to get their “fair share”.


Yes and no. In terms of purchasing power, yes it was much lower in those times. But I’ll point out a couple issues: – Poverty measurement is very sensitive to what “basket” of goods you’re selecting. If cheap rice, textiles, and electronics is most of the basket then yes we are all dramatically richer. If it’s half rent then some of us might be even poorer than our ancestors. These baskets are not selected to inform us about the lives of poor people, they’re usually just selected to represent the things today’s average consumer spends money on. So they can be very misleading when applied to poverty measurement. – Amartya Sen and others have made the case that changing social standards means that the poverty threshold should change too. If all the children in a village now have smartphones and fancy clothes, and your kid has two shirts and can’t operate a computer, your family is poor. It is a relative matter, and folks in 1820 had the ability to be upwardly mobile and successful members of their community without smartphones. They didn’t suffer from poverty the way the poor people of today do.


Yes. People in the 19th century were mostly subsistence farmers that lived shitty, short lives that would make the lives of almost all people today seem great by comparison. In fact, live right now is better (in the sense we have better and more food, better healthcare, a LOT more options to buy shit) than pretty much at any other time in history. Yeah, wages adjusted for inflation have fallen since the 60s, but you can still buy more shit, live significantly longer, with better quality of live and most importantly with far more civil rights. Not to mention the US and Western Europe are the very few places in which wages have fallen since then (most people on Reddit are Americans and Western Europeans, so they give you a very bad view of the overall world progress, since their countries are the ones with the least economic progress since then). For most of the world, wages and overall quality of live improved tremendously since the 60s and 2019 is by FAR the best year in history for the majority of the human race.


It’s highly subjective. Say a group of people are subsistence farmers, they have food security and don’t often get attacked by other groups. Are they better off than, for instance, urban dwellers who might have other advantages but are in a more precarious situation?