The World Food Program says that the number of people suffering acute food insecurity has jumped to 345 million, with 49 million teetering on the brink of famine. These people are mostly in a group of countries such as South Sudan and Afghanistan where war and climate change are making chronic poverty even worse. The war in Ukraine has increased their plight by pushing up the prices for food and the fertilizer needed to grow food.
But the critical need in these countries is not the whole story. The graphic above shows that there has been dramatic progress against poverty worldwide in recent decades and that the pandemic has not been as severe a setback for the world as a whole as might have been expected.
The percentage of the world’s people in absolute poverty plunged between 1990 and 2019 - from 35% of the world’s people to 8%. These data are from the World Bank. I see this great liberation as an experience of God in our time - a great exodus.
The pandemic pushed hundreds of millions of people back into poverty in 2020, but, measured as a percentage of the world’s people, global poverty declined slightly between 2020 and 2021 - a demonstration of tremendous resilience among struggling families around the world.
The U.S. graph on the left is based on the Census Bureau’s best measure of poverty. The first bar shows estimates for 1967, because much of the progress our country has made in recent history took place when we strengthened safety-net programs in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Those programs have been under constant political attack since they were established, but we’ve managed to maintain and improve them - notably, by focusing them on children in poverty. In September, the New York Times published a surprising study showing that child poverty dropped by more than half between 1993 and 2019.
When the pandemic first hit in the spring of 2020, seven million Americans lost their jobs, and there were long lines at food banks across the country. We had every reason to expect a sustained surge in hunger and poverty. But the Census Bureau’s recent surveys show that the United States has managed to avoid a big increase in hunger and poverty during the pandemic. Republicans and Democrats worked together to pass massive pandemic response bills, which kept the economy from collapsing and moderated the impact of the pandemic among low-income people.
When President Biden and a Democratic majority in Congress came to office in 2021, they took a series of actions to help American families “build back better” from the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan Act, notably an expansion of the Child Tax Credit, reduced hunger among families with children and child poverty to their lowest levels in U.S. history in 2021 - despite the pandemic and all our other problems. But as the CTC expansion and other pandemic assistance programs expired, poverty increased again - probably now to roughly the same levels as in 2019 and 2020.
Thus, recent experience in the United States confirms that (a) dramatic progress against hunger and poverty is still quite possible and (b) that we have more work to do to achieve the political commitment needed to achieve and sustain it.
A final note: An wide array of faith-based and secular groups have been working hard to win some expansion of the CTC for the poorest families in the big financial bill that will move through Congress in the next few days. Winning on this issue would have brought at least a million children out of poverty next year, but I just now learned that we've lost on this issue for now. God has made dramatic progress against hunger and poverty possible, but we have more work to do.