Will The Poor Always Be With Us? by Scott Todd

It’s the difference between duty and opportunity; between wishful thinking and resolved action; between should and get to. It is expectation. Expectations drive our action–and explain our inaction.

What are your expectations for the future of the poor?

Few people expect to end extreme poverty. Many think poverty is an intractable condition of our fallen world–unsolvable until Jesus returns. Did you expect extreme poverty to be gone by now? Maybe that’s why it isn’t.

If you are skeptical about the prospect of ending extreme global poverty, you are not alone. The numbers feel overwhelming: 1.4 billion people, 26% of humanity, struggle to survive on less than $1.25 per day. 21,000 children die each day from preventable causes like dirty water, hunger, malaria, and AIDS. We don’t feel like celebrating when we see those numbers. But we should.

Is it possible to end extreme, global poverty?

We are already halfway there. In 1981, 52% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, only 26%(1) do. If the percentage of those in extreme poverty had remained at 52%, 1.76 billion more people would live on less than $1.25 a day.

In the past thirty years, the number of children dying from preventable causes has dropped from over 40,000 per day to 21,000 per day(2). Every day, we are saving the lives of 20,000 children.

There are many reasons for this unprecedented progress. Over 600 million people gained access to safe drinking water since 1990. Those gains, along with an increased awareness of the nutrition in breast milk and the use of oral rehydration therapy, explain why water-borne diseases are no longer the leading cause of death for children under five. We are simply executing the practical strategies that work.

Vaccinations are another example of a practical, life-saving strategy. 733,000 children died of measles in 2000; but, that number dropped by 2008 to 164,000–a 78% reduction in only eight years(3). Simply using the vaccines that we’ve had for decades is saving hundreds of thousands of children every year.

Using insecticide-treated nets and better medicines has cut malaria rates in half in six years in over 20 countries(4). New HIV infection rates dropped by 16% in only two years(5).

There has also been incredible progress in food security and nutrition. In the 1960’s over half of the world’s nations did not produce enough food to meet the basic nutritional requirements of their citizens. By the 1990’s, however, over 90% could(6). As a result of this increase in health and nutrition, the average life expectancy doubled in most countries during the twentieth century(7).

There is a colossal volume of evidence for progress against poverty. Yet nobody seems to know about it. But, what if they did?

What if millions of us woke up to the facts of progress and lifted our expectations for the future of the poor? What if we believed that we will end extreme global poverty? We could shift our engagement from an anemic, guilt-laden duty into an energized, hope-fueled opportunity. Expecting the end will dramatically accelerate the pace of achieving it. A new book, Fast Living—How the Church Will End Extreme Poverty, is written with exactly that end in mind.

Charles Kenny, a World Bank economist and Center for Global Development fellow, concludes in Time Magazine that “The spread of global democracy, better health, more education, less violence—it all adds up to a much better world. And that suggests the biggest new idea of all: it’s time to abandon our usual pessimism about the state of the planet and the course of history.”(8)

Cynicism often presents a façade of superior intellect; as if it knows something we don’t, or holds data that we don’t. Sometimes we cast the optimist as naïve while we presume the cynic to be more “realistic”. Cynicism is a Lazy-Boy for the unimaginative and slothful thinker. In the case of ending extreme poverty, it is the cynic who is naïve.

John F. Kennedy changed the debate when he declared, “(We) will land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.” The question changed from, Can we? to How can we? Setting new expectations built serious strategies.

The monetary cost of ending extreme poverty has been estimated at $73-133 billion per year for 10 years(9). This is a small fraction of the $2.5 trillion that American church-going Christians (138 million of us) are entrusted by God to steward each year(10). Of course, American Christians would shoulder only a portion of that cost as they join a global effort shared by governments, billionaires, and the business sector.

This challenge is complex. Those laboring during these last thirty years are not adequate to finish the job. Ending poverty will require a deep social resolve, effective generosity, new channels in which the poor can influence government policies, and new market dynamics to reward businesses for poverty-reducing practices. The challenge is complex, but it is unmistakably achievable.

Christians, churches, and world-class poverty fighting organizations are now assembling an unprecedented alliance to end extreme poverty in our lifetime. Those ready to help are invited to take their place of leadership as we advance evidence-based optimism, and build mechanisms of credible action. It all begins by raising our expectations–of the future, of God, and of His work through us.

The question is not, “Can we end extreme poverty?” The question is, “How fast?”

Visit Scott Todd’s website or contact him at [email protected]
Read USA Today’s article on Scott Todd.
Watch Scott Todd’s Q Talk.