economic thought on poverty

The First Poverty Enlightenment was in the 20 or so years prior to the turn of the 19th century. Popular critiques of prevailing social hierarchies blossomed in London and Paris, in the latter case famously culminating in the French Revolution. The philosophical writings of Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, [Adam] Smith and others articulated a new respect for poor people as people, not merely serving some purely instrumental role as means of production. The economy itself came to be seen as a means for promoting all human welfare.

Smith’s (1776) influential critique of the mercantilist view that a country’s progress should be judged by its balance of trade was an important step in opening the way to (eventually) seeing progress against poverty as a goal for development, rather than a threat to it. Smith also argued in favor of promotional antipoverty policies, such as public subsidies to help cover schooling costs of the ‘common people’. But on this and other social issues, Smith was evidently far more progressive than most of his peers or near-term followers. ….

The Second Poverty Enlightenment came in the period around 1960-80, with continuing influence today. This saw both a steeper pace of decline in the global poverty rate and intellectually stronger and better-informed arguments for antipoverty policy. Mass attention to poverty also reached its historical peak. This is evident if one enters the word ‘poverty’ in the Google Books Ngram Viewer; there was a sharp increase in the 1960s and by the first decade of this decade references to ‘poverty’ as a proportion of all published words reached its highest value in 300 years, in both English and French.

Martin Ravallion, “Lessons from a history of thought on poverty“, Vox EU, 13 August 2013.

The full column, which is interesting throughout, can be accessed at the link. Australian economist Martin Ravallion (born 1952) is now a professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC. Until this year he was Director of the World Bank’s research department. He joined the Bank as Economist in 1988 and worked there for 24 years.

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